Food Enforcement Officers (Powers)

WAYS AND MEANS [9th March] – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th April 1949.

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

10.2 p.m.

Photo of Sir John Langford-Holt Sir John Langford-Holt , Shrewsbury

I rise tonight to bring to the notice of the House, which should always be and today, I hope, still is, the custodian of the freedom of the people of this country, a matter which will, I trust, be treated not as a party question. It is a matter which affects every Member of this House and every constituency in this Kingdom. About a year ago my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) raised this question. His approach at that time was criticised by the right hon. Lady the Parliamentary Secretary, as being rather that of one of a number of farmers who resented interference by the Government in his private affairs. I am not a farmer. I approach this subject in a completely unprejudiced way. I have the interest only of an ordinary citizen, likely to be affected in this matter only in that capacity.

In excusing the existence of the enforcement officers of her Department, the right hon. Lady was confident that they performed their duties politely. It is within the recollection of the House that the executioners under Herr Hitler used to wear tails and white gloves, but that did not in any way cleanse the deeds which they were performing. The right hon. Lady also referred to the fact that there had been few complaints about the activities of enforcement officers. I do not think that the fewness of the complaints is an excuse for the existence of these officers. Does not the fact that there are even a few examples of their being used to provide evidence against the ordinary citizens of this country, who are not necessarily law breakers by habit or even by design, of itself, afford justification for their condemnation?

I should like to consider for a moment the authority by which these men, and, I believe, women, operate. I should like to ask the right hon. Lady whether the sole authority for their operations is Defence Regulation 55AA. So far as I have been able to discover, that is the only authority. It is worth while looking at that Defence Regulation. It empowers a competent authority to appoint inspectors and says: An inspector may, on production of the warrant issued to him, enter any premises, used or appropriated for the purposes of any undertaking to which the warrant relates, and may inspect such premises and any articles found therein. That, I presume, is the authority. I shall be most anxious to hear from the right hon. Lady whether there is any other authority, because I want to refer to what I feel must be an extension of those powers in a direction where no authority exists. I also ask whether there is any statutory limit, in that regulation to the numbers which she or her right hon. Friend may employ, for what is, after all, is nothing more or less than a private police force. Is there any category of person which they may employ, or may not employ? The Defence Regulation also says that the right hon. Gentleman, for he is the "competent authority," may delegate all or any … functions… to any specified persons or class of persons. Under that, as I read it, the right hon. Gentleman may say that all people with blue eyes can be enforcement officers. He may specify that all Members of this House may be enforcement officers. I see no limit to it.

I wish to know how the ordinary person, the ordinary citizen, housewife and man in the street can discover what are the duties, what are the powers, and what are the rights of these individuals. With all the facilities which a Member of this House has, it took me many hours' study to find exactly what those rights and powers are and I am still not clear in my mind and may be wrong. I hope the right hon. Lady will correct me if I am wrong. I wrote to her recently when, in order to clear up this matter, I invited a representative of the Ministry of Food to address a public meeting in Shrewsbury, my constituency, to lay clearly before the people exactly what are the rights and powers of these persons. I got from her what I must say I thought an extremely lame reply. She said: I am sorry to say that we shall be unable to comply with this request, because if we did, it would set up a precedent as a result of which we would have to provide a similar service to many other meetings and associations. I think that reply must be considered particularly weak when one considers the difficulties, amounting almost to impossibility, of the ordinary citizens in finding out where they stand in this matter. The refusal of a Department which is using this power to explain it to the people is nearly unforgiveable.

We have got to the position now where the housewife is not aware of her rights and is not aware of the obligation which she is to undergo in this matter. To her it is a case, rather, of one or two men turning up with a piece of white paper signed by the right hon. Gentleman, or the right hon. Lady, or their deputies—it is the case of these two men arriving and pushing the paper under the nose of the housewife, and it is "Meredith, we're in!" I doubt very much whether the ordinary housewife or householder knows anything of this regulation. Who are these people, what are they, what are their numbers?

The right hon. Lady a year ago mentioned the question of the police. When the police force carry out a search of any premises they do so, in many cases, especially in the case of plain clothes detectives, after many years of training in the matter. Plain clothes police have to carry out training over and above ordinary police duty. On 20th April last year the right hon. Lady said that these men to whom I am referring had, for the most part, served in our police force. I have no reason to doubt that statement. I should like to know what percentage of these enforcement officers have served in the police force, and, if they have served, why they are not serving now. I do not wish to suggest that it is due either to incompetence or old age, but if it is not due to either of those reasons, why are they not serving in the police force in the present time of shortage, and why are not their duties performed through what for many years have been the normal channels, by police acting on a search warrant issued by the magistrate?

In the same Debate the right hon. Lady said that these men were specially selected, and that before they began their operations they were told that they must exercise the greatest tact and courtesy. I should like to ask her how they are specially selected, from what categories of individuals they are taken and how their recruitment is achieved. In parentheses, I do not think it is satisfactory, before sending a person out on a mission of this nature, to give them a quiet admonition to do it nicely. That is wholly inadequate. I have never met a police officer or policeman who approved of the enforcement officer as such, or his method of going about his business. They do not approve of these people getting powers and privileges which they, the police, have not got.

The right hon. Lady has said that complaints against the activities of these enforcement officers have been of a trivial nature. I wonder if she would say it was a trivial matter if, for example, when a man robbed one he did not break the china in doing so? It is a similar case, if one may draw an analogy. I should also like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary how many enforcement officers there are in the service of her Ministry today. At this time last year she said that there were 751. On 7th February this year the Minister of Food said that there were 968. That is an increase of 217 or 28 per cent. I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to tell the House what the figures are today and whether these numbers are on the increase or on the decrease.

On 22nd September, last year, that is about six months ago, the right hon. Lady stated in answer to a Question that there were 1,989 persons who had the warrant to which I have referred under Defence Regulation 55AA. Of these, 982 she said were enforcement officers and the others were inspectors of food production and storage. That means that there are about 1,000 inspectors of food production and storage. What do these men do, what qualifications have they, what powers have they? Have they the same powers as are granted to the enforcement officers? I referred earlier to an extension of these powers for which I could trace no authority.

We have heard or read in the Press of cars having been stopped on the road. Under this Defence Regulation the Minister has the right to investigate through his enforcement officers premises which are conducting the business of food. Does a car on the road constitute premises conducting business in that way, or is there some other authority, which I have not been able to find, which gives her enforcement officers the right to stop cars on the road, which, in point of fact, is happening whether the officer is accompanied by a policeman or not? On 20th September her right hon. Friend said that no regulations were necessary to empower enforcement officers to question a private individual regarding the parcels he is carrying in his car. Is that a correct statement of the facts? Does the right hon. Lady or her right hon. Friend contend, therefore, that anyone can stop a car on the road and make inquiries about the parcels contained therein? I cannot believe that. Where is the authority for that? I should like to know whether these people stop certain cars because they suspect there are black market activities being carried out; or do they place themselves on the road to stop all cars passing; or do they stop them at random? There is a very definite distinction between those activities.

I wonder whether the House is aware exactly where this type of activity is leading us? After all it is only the beginning of the political police and economic police systems which one sees and condemns in the countries of Eastern Europe. It is a very short call between the enforcement officers of this country and the economic police of Eastern European countries. This is exactly the same process as that used in pre-war years in the Fascist States of Europe and the great danger today is that we probably do not know it. We are coming into the position where there are two laws in this country. There is the law enforced by the police, and there is the law enforced by the private police forces of the various Ministries. Is that the path which the right hon. Lady intends that her Ministry shall continue to tread?

I hope the right hon. Lady will not accuse me of intending or hoping to foster the black market. That is not my intention at all, and I hope that she will take my assurance that it is not. Nor, indeed, could it be the intention of any Member of this House who sought to put the same question before her. She might just as well accuse the Home Secretary of trying to foster murder because he insists that a policeman shall get a warrant before making an arrest. What is the authority? What are the powers? How many of these men are there? Is there any limit set on the number? How can the ordinary person discover what are these powers? Is there any method by which the right hon. Lady can make them public in an easily understandable form? What training do these officers undergo? What percentage, for example, are ex-policemen, and why should not the normal procedure of going to a magistrate be followed by these enforcement officers? I feel that we have started a new feature in the justice of this country. The justice of this country is our pride and the admiration of the whole world, and this is an alien feature which I feel is getting into our society. If we do not make some effort to stamp it out now, we may find it hanging round our necks for many years to come.

Photo of Mr Christopher Hollis Mr Christopher Hollis , Devizes

Mr. Hollis (Devizes)rose

10.20 p.m.

Photo of Dr Edith Summerskill Dr Edith Summerskill , Fulham West

Perhaps the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Hollis) will forgive me, but I have only 11 minutes to reply and the hon. Member for Shrewsbury (Mr. Langford-Holt) who raised the matter, will feel exceedingly annoyed if I do not give him an adequate reply. I am very pleased to be here to answer what I consider is quite an unwarranted attack on a very fine body of men.

Photo of Sir John Langford-Holt Sir John Langford-Holt , Shrewsbury

Would the right hon. Lady excuse me—

Photo of Dr Edith Summerskill Dr Edith Summerskill , Fulham West

No, Sir. The hon. Member has now had 20 minutes to put his case in which, I repeat, he has attacked a body of men who are not here to answer for themselves.

Photo of Sir John Langford-Holt Sir John Langford-Holt , Shrewsbury

I am attacking the system, not the men.

Summerskill:

I am here to answer for the men. It would be unfair to them plaints were made for the hon. Gentleman to encroach upon my very limited time so that I could not give a satisfactory answer. After having been in my Department for nearly four years, having had an opportunity to watch the activities of the officials there, and having been in a position to be able to criticise their work and to decide whether the functions they were fulfilling were necessary, I can say categorically that all these men whom the hon. Gentleman has attacked have been giving a most valuable service to the country.

Photo of Dr Edith Summerskill Dr Edith Summerskill , Fulham West

If the hon. Gentleman will exercise a little patience, I shall come to that.

Photo of Dr Edith Summerskill Dr Edith Summerskill , Fulham West

There are 996. Now the hon. Gentleman can go home.

Photo of Dr Edith Summerskill Dr Edith Summerskill , Fulham West

There is one to every 50,000 of the population. Probably these men are more vulnerable to attack, as we have seen tonight, than any other officials in my Department. Whatever tact these men exercise, however delicately they handle a given situation, there are people who will criticise them, people who will perhaps feel irritated and annoyed for one reason or another. [Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Member for Shrewsbury will be as quiet now as I was when I listened to him. He will remember that I did not interject once, although he did try my patience.

I wish to ask the House how they would test a man's capacity. Surely in this matter it is a good guide to whether or not a man is doing his job well or ill to examine the number of complaints. For one reason or another, the hon. Gentleman pooh-poohs that. He said that the number of complaints against this body of men was no criterion of their work. I want the House to know the number of complaints against these men during the last year or two. In the period December, 1947, to April, 1948, when we were making a special drive to find out those people who were guilty of illicit slaughtering, out of 11,000 inspections—I think the hon. Gentleman may have quoted this figure—only 21 cornplaints were made.

The House will agree that those were imspections which demanded tact and patience and all those qualities which many men who may have a high intelligence sometimes do not manifest. Furthermore, in the last year there were 94,000 investigations which resulted in 10,186 persons being prosecuted on 27,002 charges of which 25,609, or 94.8 per cent., were successful. The hon. Gentleman derides the work of these men when, of 27,000 charges, 94.8 per cent. were successful. The hon. Gentleman has the effrontery to come to this House and to suggest that these men are not serving our country.

Why were there so few complaints? It was because these men were very carefully chosen. Of these men, 90 per cent. have already served in our Police Force. We do not take them on unless they are of exemplary character. Would the hon. Gentleman dare come here tonight and speak as he has done of our Police Force? Of course, he would not. Our Police Force are admired throughout the world for their tact, courtesy and efficiency. Our enforcement officers, these men of my Department, reflect the same qualities.

The hon. Gentleman asks whether there was any necessity for these powers. What are these men doing? They are protecting the majority against the minority of potential law breakers. What are they protecting? They are protecting the vital interests of the country—the food supplies. The hon. Gentleman asked me where an ordinary person can find out what are the powers of these people. I am amazed that hon. Gentlemen can come here and show that they are so ill-informed, that they can come here and attack a body of men of this kind when apparently they have not the knowledge nor the energy to look at the warrant card about which the hon. Gentleman has been talking and which, with great pleasure, I will hand to the hon. Gentleman after this Debate so that he can read it. All he need do is to look at the warrant card on which is given the name and the picture of the holder in order that he can be identified. On it is set out the man's powers.

The hon. Gentleman also asked me how the simple person could find out what these powers were. He has only to ask for the warrant card and read it. My only criticism of the warrant card is that the printing is small and difficult to see in a dull light, and at night people possibly would not be able to read it. However, the powers are set out there as the power of entry and inspection of food undertakings, authority to require the production of records of food undertakings, and power to inspect them, and the power to take samples and carry out tests. In addition, the Seizure of Food Order gives authority to seize foodstuffs in special circumstances.

Photo of Dr Edith Summerskill Dr Edith Summerskill , Fulham West

The card is signed by a Ministry of Food official and has an official number. The House will recognise that it would be a little difficult for me to sign 996 of these cards, and particularly those that have to be changed. We have to delegate some of our authority. Hon. Gentlemen must know that it is quite impossible to conduct every food undertaking from Whitehall. We have to decentralise our work, and, as I am proving, we do delegate our authority to highly responsible men.

I was also asked how these men are kept informed concerning their powers. First, we issue a series of circulars in order that they shall know what their powers are and how they might change. We have a course of instruction at headquarters, which these men attend, and are there given details of their work. Although the hon. Gentleman laughed at this, these men are told that they are expected to recognise a certain standard of behaviour, and there is a code accepted by them and which they respect. I think the whole country recognises that they do respect it, otherwise there would be more complaints. So far as the power of search is concerned, enforcement inspectors can only search food undertakings. A definition of food undertakings is set out on the warrant card, so that a person who is reluctant to allow these officers to investigate his premises can examine the card and find out whether his premises come within the definition. So far as cars are concerned, the only cars which officers can inspect are those used for food undertakings—no private cars.

The hon. Gentleman also asked me about lectures. We do give lectures to certain organisations, but not about these people and their work. We have got a panel of lecturers who lecture on food supplies generally, and we have a few who lecture on nutritional subjects, particularly to expectant mothers. Surely. the hon. Gentleman is very inconsistent tonight. First, he demands to know whether we supply lecturers and others to talk on enforcement and legal matters, and, on the other hand, he charges us with being extravagant in regard to the number of people we employ. What does he want us to do—to run a lecture agency as an ancillary to my Department? What would happen then? I think he also wanted someone to address his Housewives' League. If he does, I see no reason why the Women's Section of the Labour Party should not also ask for people to go and address them. Why should not the Mothers' Union? Why should not all the mothers' associations attached to the churches which meet every week? Then, surely, my Department would be vulnerable to attack from hon. Gentlemen opposite, and rightly so, for wasting public money by supplying lecturers instead of using men for the purpose for which they are engaged.

With regard to numbers, I think I have given them to the hon. Gentleman—one in 50,000. I am quite willing to give the cost of these services. The regional organisation in the year 1948–49 cost £287,240; in the year 1949–50, £451,654; the headquarters staff in 1949, cost £24,231. The total salaries for both regional and headquarters staff in 1949–50 was therefore £475,885. I suggest, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that this is an excellent investment.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.