Orders of the Day — Potato Rationing

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10th November 1947.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Snow.]

10.0 p.m.

Photo of Sir Herbert Butcher Sir Herbert Butcher , Holland with Boston

I desire to raise this evening the question of the potato supply, with particular reference to the savage cut which was announced by the Minister of Food on Saturday. Under former Ministers of Food, we have had two items to which our population has had free and unrationed access, bread and potatoes. When the housewives of this country cast their minds back to the days of Lord Woolton, they will realise that no matter how much the meat, bacon, fat and other rations might vary—and they were usually better rations than we have today—they always had access to those two commodities as fillers. After imposing bread rationing some months ago, the Minister of Food has now surrendered the last line of defence, which was the unrationed supply of potatoes.

Let us be quite clear that this measure is going to hit hardest the poorest people who live in the industrial centres, households consisting of man, wife and children, without opportunity of access to gardens or allotments. They will be the people to suffer, the poorest of the community. Normally, the more fortunate people live in larger houses with larger gardens, and there will really be no particular hardship on them, while in the countryside, of course, this rationing of potatoes will be completely inoperative. Indeed, it is well worth realising that in France, which produces so many of her own commodities, rationing has broken down because of the difficulty of securing control over commodities produced in the countryside.

This rationing is a tragic departure from the principle which has hitherto obtained in this country of fair shares for all. From now on it will be large shares for some and smaller shares for others. What will be the result? Already, according to tonight's newspapers, there is an inevitable rush and pressure of prices on other vegetables. The price of swedes has gone up by 4d. per lb., of turnips by 5d., and of parsnips by 8d. The Minister, when pressed at his Press conference to give reasons for the introduction of the rationing scheme, mentioned the reduced acreage planted owing to floods, and the reduced yield per acre. These are not the sole reasons. The real reasons are lack of judgment, inability to plan ahead, and lack of courage to take unpopular political decisions.

That there was likely to be a shortage of potatoes in 1947 has been known for a very long time. I represent what is probably the largest potato-growing area in England. In December, 1946, it was quite evident that the crop was moving much faster than in previous years. The Minister will remember that I put a Question to him as long ago as 29th January of this year, asking if he proposed to introduce a rationing scheme for potatoes. Hon. Members will find in HANSARD that the Minister replied that he was awaiting the result of the January stock. He said there were large supplies, but that consumption had also largely increased. No potatoes had been or would be sent to Germany, and he did not propose to ration potatoes. I was not alone in my concern over this matter as hon. Members will find in volumes 433, 434, 435 and 436 of HANSARD. Hon. Members in all parts of the House were putting Questions to the Minister concerning the potato shortage.

On 24th March there was a statement by the Minister of Agriculture on flooding, and several hon. Gentlemen indicated in that Debate a serious loss of ware potatoes for human consumption, of seed potatoes and of damage done to potato land. That was not the last warning the Minister had. We now come to 1st July when there was a Debate on food supplies. I do not want to score party points off the Minister, so let me remind him of what one of his supporters, the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Collins), said: I agree that there is a danger that in the coming season there will be a shortage of potatoes considerably greater than any present shortage."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st July, 1947; Vol. 439, c. 1225.] What did the Minister say? In the same Debate he said: One thing -I am perfectly willing" to say. There is no food crisis, and there will be no food crisis between now and the next harvest. A little further down on the same page he said: If I look further ahead, as I am challenged to do, I would say this. There is no need whatever for the housewives or the people of this country to feel that they will find it difficult or impossible, as is sometimes suggested, to obtain, partly from at home and partly from abroad, the food which they need."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st July, 1947; Vol. 439, c. 1183.] I ask the right hon. Gentleman how that statement agrees with his reduction of the consumption of potatoes from 5 lb. per head per week, which is the figure he gave at Question time today, with the ration of 3 lb. per head per week which he announced on Saturday.

If the Minister had been more prudent and more politically courageous he would have considered imposing rationing of potatoes at the same time as bread rationing was imposed, because the moment access to the bread ration, particularly with B.Us., could be translated into points, the whole of the load of fill- ing people's stomachs was transferred to the potato crop. He ought to have imposed it at the latest in February or March of this year in order to make the 1946 crop last longer. Instead of having the difficult position which arose in June when all the 1946 crop was used up, it would have been possible to allow the 1947 crop to remain in the ground a few weeks longer and add on additional weight. Instead, to meet the potato famine, thousands of acres of potatoes were lifted and rushed to the market when the yield was only three or four tons to the acre instead of allowing them to grow on to get a greater weight.

I now deal with the Minister's excuse that the shortage is due to flooding. That is, of course, a small contributory factor, but the House will recollect that on 24th April the Minister of Agriculture said that while at one period 690,000 acres had been flooded, on that date the acreage flooded had been reduced to 80,000, and he hoped some of that would be available for cropping. The primary reason for this shortage is that the Minister of Food, in conjunction with the Minister of Agriculture, did not take steps to see that an adequate acreage was planted. The Minister of Agriculture said, on 6th March, that the target for potato acreage was 1,400,000 acres, which was roughly the same as the acreage planted in 1946. This figure was fixed after consultation with the Minister of Food, if Government Departments ever talk to one another, but the actual acreage planted was only 1,332,000, a lower figure than any year since 1943. This fact was known by the Government and was obvious as soon as the 4th June returns were received.

The real failure to achieve the target is the lack of planting sufficient acres. Knowing that the acreage planted was so small, the Minister took a gamble The gamble he took was this. To get the same tonnage he would have had to have a national average yield of 7.6 tons to the acre, but the figures for the preceding years were: 1944, 6.4; 1945, 7; and 1946, 7.1. The Minister had no right to take that reckless gamble with the nation's food. It did not come off, and the yield this year is apparently 6.05 tons to the acre. Why should he anticipate any higher yield? In the bulletin "Potatoes", No. 4, issued by the Ministry of Agriculture the yield of potatoes is given for the whole of the country as just over six tons per acre. The Minister gambled on securing a return of 7.6. These are facts that cause me to feel that we can have no confidence in the present Minister.

There was one other statement that he made at his Press conference. He is reported as saying that he did not think potatoes were a candidate for a serious black market. The Minister is living in a fool's paradise. The black market in potatoes has already begun. I will tell him what the price is. The price is now £1 per bag or £20 a ton—two or three times the controlled figure. This shortage of potatoes is caused by an indiscreet observation by the Foreign Secretary which has led people to store up potatoes, many of which have been wasted. It is a melancholy thing to think that in the third winter after victory—and also of a Labour Government—the people of this country should have this harsh burden imposed on them. It would have been mitigated enormously if the Minister had introduced a scheme far earlier than he has done. There is no doubt that rationing is necessary but, if it had been imposed earlier, the people of this country would have been able to have 4 lb. or 4½ lb. per week instead of the drastic and terrible cut to 3 lb. which the Minister has imposed on them.

If the Minister in future shows proper prudence, there is no reason why this rationing should last after October of next year, but I do not believe the people of this country have any confidence in the present Minister at all. It is just another case of the gross mismanagement of the national affairs which he has displayed since he has been in office. If any little office boy had muddled the postage book which he was supposed to keep, his employer would have sacked him immediately. The Minister was able to survive the last purge, but I say to the Prime Minister that if he ever wants to secure 100 per cent. popularity, and to restore the fortunes of his sinking Government, there is nothing better he can do than to include the present Minister in the next purge. Why should the people of this country be compelled to endure these hardships, after all they have fought and died for, because of the incompetence of the Minister? Had there been more competence, more foresight and more political courage, there would have been no need for this stupid burden to have been imposed on the people of this country.

10.12 p.m.

Photo of Mr Eustace Willis Mr Eustace Willis , Edinburgh North

The point I wish to make arises out of two of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Butcher). He said, I think with some truth, that when we ration crops or foodstuffs sup plied from the countryside, we are at once faced with the difficulty of ensuring that we get those crops. The other re mark he made towards the end of his speech was that a black market had already started in potatoes. I want to ask what acreage a person will be allowed to grow, now that rationing has commenced, and dispose of without its going to the Ministry of Food. I under stand that the position at the present time is that a person can grow three acres—

Photo of Mr Eustace Willis Mr Eustace Willis , Edinburgh North

— and dispose of them himself.

Photo of Mr Evelyn Strachey Mr Evelyn Strachey , Dundee

I speak subject to correction, but I think it is one acre.

Photo of Mr Eustace Willis Mr Eustace Willis , Edinburgh North

I was asked to raise this point should the matter come up, and was informed that it was three acres. If that is the case, it seems to me to leave the door wide open for a considerable black market in potatoes, and I would like my right hon. Friend to give us some information about that, if he can.

10.15 p.m.

Photo of Mr Evelyn Strachey Mr Evelyn Strachey , Dundee

Far be it from me to minimise the seriousness of the topic which the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Butcher) has raised on the Adjournment. I found it a little difficult to follow his speech, because it started with a forthright attack on myself for rationing potatoes, and then turned into an equally forthright complaint that I had not rationed potatoes earlier. The hon. Member cannot have it both ways. The hon. Member began his speech with a large number of complaints and quotations from warnings which he and other hon. Members gave me as to the situation last spring, and the supply of potatoes at that time. Whatever the rights or wrongs of those warnings may have been, they have absolutely nothing to do with the present situation, because they referred to the previous crop year, and had to do with the supply of potatoes out of the 1946 crop. That crop was short, unquestionably, but we were just able to make it last without imposing a rationing scheme, and if a rationing scheme had been imposed at that time with reference to that crop, it would not have had the slightest effect one way or the other on the present position. The hon. Member knows that quite as well as I do, and it is trading on our innocence if he pretends that it would have had the slightest effect.

Photo of Sir Herbert Butcher Sir Herbert Butcher , Holland with Boston

I thought I made it quite clear that the rationing of the 1946 crop would have prevented the rushing to market of the 1947 crop before it was fully grown.

Photo of Mr Evelyn Strachey Mr Evelyn Strachey , Dundee

I do not believe that for one moment. The early potatoes came to the market in the normal way from the Scilly Isles, Cornwall and the rest. I do not think there was any question of a premature delivery of that crop. The hon. Member then dealt with a speech I made on the Estimates of my Department on 1st July, and I would like to repeat three things which I said on that occasion. The hon. Member quite fairly read out what I said—that there would be no food crisis before the 1947 harvest. I said that because I had been attacked and accused by him and a great many other hon. Members, and told that after the fuel crisis would come a food crisis in that year before the harvest came in, and I was able to say on 1st July that, not without difficulty and not without straining the resources of the import of food into the country, it was clear that we had got through to harvest without a food crisis.

As the hon. Member read out perfectly fairly, those were the words I used. I said something else—and this, of course, he omitted entirely, but he will find it in HANSARD —that in the coming year, the crop year 1947–48, it would be desperately difficult this winter—those were the words I used—for this country to secure its imports of food crops. I said there was a double problem, the problem of shortage of foodstuffs in the world, which continues, and added to that a shortage of foreign exchange, and in particular dollars, which could be made available to buy them. That was precisely what I said in respect of this year. I went on to say—and believe it, and repeat it here—that in the years to come, looking ahead to the prospects of this country, there is no reason to suppose that the people of this country will not be able to obtain an ample supply of foodstuffs, partly by growing them themselves, and partly by exchanging their manufactured products for foodstuffs. Any bogy which anyone in this House, quite irrespective of party, attempts to raise to the effect that there is something in the new world situation which makes it impossible for the inhabitants of this island to feed themselves in the rest of this century I believe to be completely untrue. Those were the three things I said on 1st July. I am repeating them this evening, and I am prepared to repeat them at any time, and to argue them.

To turn to the hon. Member's statement about potatoes, he says that the real error was that an adequate acreage was not planted. That is perfectly true of last year in the sense that the flood conditions, of which he knows, and which he quite rightly says reduced the acreage by at least 80,000, made it impossible to reach the target which had been set for the acreage of the country for the 1947 harvest. In my opinion, it is of the utmost importance that we should plant an adequate acreage of potatoes this year and in future years.

Photo of Sir John Barlow Sir John Barlow , Eddisbury

Is the right hon. Gentleman proposing to direct farmers to grow potatoes this year, and to give them acreages?

Photo of Mr Evelyn Strachey Mr Evelyn Strachey , Dundee

That is something outside the scope of my Department. It is a question which should be addressed to my light hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, but those powers are in his hands. The hon. Member then turned to the question of whether rationing should not have been imposed earlier. I have already said that the position of rationing during the last potato crop year would have had no influence whatever one way or another.

The hon. Member then came to the substantial point, and one which I think well worth arguing and giving attention to, and one which is much more substantial than any attack over rationing now—the question of whether rationing ought not to have been imposed earlier. Naturally, we went into this with the utmost care, and the real situation is this: Until last month, October, it was impossible to know what the size of the crop would be. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture could not give me any reliable estimates of the size of the crop.

On the other hand, it was clear that as the very hot summer went on there was danger of a short crop. We began to take steps to restrict the off-take, and so the consumption, of potatoes, as early as 1st August, when a prohibition on the sale of long-keeping varieties was brought into effect. It was not imposed on non-long-keeping varieties because it was no use preserving them—they must be used up. Then we gradually and progressively increased the stringency of our measures, increasing the buying up and the prohibition of sale to the public of these long-keeping varieties, and reinforcing that with the prohibition of the transport of potatoes from surplus to deficit areas. But it was not until the autumn, until this time of year, when a sufficient proportion of the potatoes had come into the hands of the Ministry, and the control of distribution was possible, that an allocation scheme of this sort could be brought into effect. We were advised by the very able men who control the Potato Division of the Ministry, exactly the same men who have controlled it for the past six years, that it would have been quite impracticable to bring any such scheme as this into effect earlier during this period. Therefore, I am perfectly clear that as a matter of actual practicability it would not have been a useful or an intelligent thing to have introduced this scheme earlier.

Photo of Mr Robin Turton Mr Robin Turton , Thirsk and Malton

Did the right hon. Gentleman at any time alter the size of the riddle?

Photo of Mr Evelyn Strachey Mr Evelyn Strachey , Dundee

Yes, Sir. The riddle was brought down to what we were advised was the least size possible. That was obviously one of the steps to be taken. My hon. Friend the Member for North Edinburgh (Mr. Willis) is wrong in thinking that the limit is three acres; it is—I will confirm it later—one acre. We shall, of course, maintain that.

I would only say, in conclusion, that I regard the rationing of potatoes as a very serious thing which we should only do because, in the present circumstances, with the present crop, we should quite manifestly be failing in our elementary duty to the country if we did not do it. It is obviously a most unpopular and most unpalatable step to take. But surely, Sir, any Government or any Minister who failed to take it under present circumstances and instead let the potato supplies of this country run out at some time in the New Year before the new crop-was ready, would be failing in his duty. He really would be open to these strictures which the hon. Member saw fit to pass on me.

It is precisely because we are not afraid of taking these necessarily unpalatable and hard decisions when we are faced with the fact that from a smaller acreage the yield is almost exactly one ton per acre down on last year; precisely because we had the responsibility to see that the available supplies are maintained through the rest of the crop year and to ensure that there is no catastrophic running out; it is precisely because of that situation that, come what may and whatever is said of us from the other side of the House, we shall impose the necessary measures which will do two things. They are measures which will, so far as is humanly possible, give a fair share of the available supplies to all households and will, above all, maintain the supplies until the new crops are available. I stand unflinchingly by that decision as the only one which any responsible Minister—certainly which any Government which cared for maintaining the essential food supplies of the people of this country—must take. It is one which is exceedingly painful, and which, I would agree, in present circumstances is bound to bear hard on the population.

But far, far worse, surely, would be to allow our available supplies to pass into unrestricted consumption during these weeks and months and then for the supplies to run right out next year. It is of vital importance that we should maintain supplies to the whole population, and that we should share them equally so that we may come through the crop year of 1947, which is characterised by the lowest yield since 1931, without running out of our supply of potatoes, and able to face the new crop without a lapse in supplies. That is why we have introduced this measure. That is why we face the kind of criticism which, no doubt, was bound to come, and of which we do not complain, from the hon. Member and other hon. Members who, I am quite sure, at heart know that we have done the right thing, and the only possible thing, when faced with this amount of supplies, in rationing the available quantity and providing, as far as humanly possible, an equal supply to every household in this country.

10.28 p.m.

Photo of Mr James Reid Mr James Reid , Glasgow Hillhead

The first remark which I should like to make about the Minister's conduct in this matter concerns his notable failure to give adequate information to the country. He has told us tonight that there has been no undue drain upon the eight million tons of potatoes which we have grown this year, according to the estimate—and he has not quarrelled with that estimate. How does he propose to dispose of that eight million tons? If I am not wrong, this rationing scheme will not take up anything like one half of that—

Photo of Mr Evelyn Strachey Mr Evelyn Strachey , Dundee

Mr. Strachey indicated dissent

Photo of Mr James Reid Mr James Reid , Glasgow Hillhead

Then let us hear what the amount is to be. There was a gap of four million tons between the amount grown and the amount moved off the farms. We all understand that something over one million tons is taken up by seed potatoes. It may well be that, as there was a large crop last year, the other three million tons, or thereabouts, found a most useful home. The Minister has not told us how he proposes to narrow the gap between the total grown and the total available for human consumption this year. The country would be most interested to hear how he proposes to do that. I feel it is very difficult to believe that he could not afford more than three—

It being Half-past" Ten o'Clock, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.