Orders of the Day — Restaurant Meals, Price Limit

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21 July 1949.

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

10.6 p.m.

Photo of Sir Edward Keeling Sir Edward Keeling , Twickenham

The British public are a long-suffering, patient people. I do not think any other people in the world would tolerate the continuance, after four years of peace, of the regulation that one may not spend more than 5s. on a lunch or dinner in a public restaurant except in a few cases where two things can be proved; first that the overhead expenses, and secondly that the pre-war price justifies what is called a "house charge." Or that they would tolerate the subsidiary rule that one cannot have more than three courses, of which only one may be what is called a "main dish."

Britain could be the most attractive country in the world for tourists. Of all countries in Europe, we have the mildest climate, the most charming scenery and the grandest historic buildings. But we have the least attractive food. I am sure that it is largely because tourists seek first-rate and varied food without any restrictions that Americans who come to this country so often cross the Channel to France after two or three days; and that the British themselves stream abroad at the rate of about 30,000 a week. As was well said by a journalist, a tourist motoring through France or Italy or Switzerland feels a pleasurable emotion as the hour of lunch is approaching. But if he is motoring through Britain he feels a dull foreboding.

I have talked with many Americans and other visitors, and also with many hotel and restaurant managers in this country. As a result I have no hesitation in saying that the 5s. limit on restaurant meals loses us many millions of dollars a year and drives people in this country abroad to spend millions a year there. I do not ask you, Mr. Speaker, to accept my word. I shall quote from the report of the British Tourist and Holidays Board which came out only a few days ago. As hon. Members know, this is an official body subsidised as to 75 per cent. of its expenditure by the Government themselves. This is what they say: The Board has represented to His Majesty's Government that the maintenance of the 5s. maximum price of meals is detrimental to the development and improvement of hotel and catering services, and that the need for price control of meals no longer obtains … The industry requires the utmost flexibility, and the withdrawal of the 5s. limit would give this, and make for a happier reception of overseas visitors by giving them freedom of choice. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food whether the Government are going to ignore this advice given to them by their own experts. After all, a great many of these people cross the Atlantic in British ships in which, if there is a restaurant, they may eat an unlimited number of courses and spend as much money as they please. Not unnaturally, such visitors expect that when they reach this country this freedom will not be taken away from them.

Now, one inevitable result of a law which is so unpopular is that, while it is, I admit, largely observed, and on occasion enforced by prosecution, to an even larger extent, perhaps, it is evaded or ignored. I was staying in an hotel in the Midlands for the weekend, and on the first night the maître d'hötel came up to the table at which I was, and said to me and my party, "Would you like hors d'oeuvres, soup, salmon, chicken, and ice?"

Photo of Sir Edward Keeling Sir Edward Keeling , Twickenham

Not Leicester. It is not relevant to tell you, Mr. Speaker, what answer I gave. But the point is that here is a law being openly and unashamedly ignored. I was lunching the other day at a restaurant near London where, although there was no house charge, the bill for each luncheon, quite apart from the drinks, was 12s. 6d. and not 5s. A little maraschino had been put into the strawberries, and there was a charge of 7s. 6d. for it on the bill. That was perfectly legal, and so is the practice of a certain seaside hotel where lobsters are served in the bedrooms before dinner and charged for as an extra meal. I suggest that a law so easily evaded ought to be repealed, otherwise the law generally is brought into disrepute.

But there are other objections to this order. The complications of it completely baffle the foreigner, who has heard of the 5s., and, not unnaturally, suspects he is being exploited when he finds that the charge on the bill is 5s. multiplied several or many times by extras. A bill for one person for one meal, excluding drinks, may amount, quite legally, to as much as £2 or more, made up as follows: 5s. basic charge; 6s. house charge, which is the maximum, I think; 4s. for oysters; 10s. for flowers; 7s. 6d. for the maraschino or some other liqueur in the food; 2s. 6d. for dancing or cabaret, always provided that not fewer than four persons are employed—what a terrible strain on the manpower of this country that a restaurant should have to employ not fewer than four performers or chorus girls in order to enable that restaurant to make an extra charge of 2s. 6d.; 2s. for coffee; and a service charge of 6d. for each 5s. of the bill.

That does not include wine, except what is in the food, and the fact is, of course, that very inflated charges are made for wines by the miserable hotel proprietor, who has no other means of providing really good food. He could not possibly provide grouse within a 5s. bill of fare unless he charged an inflated amount for his wine. Of course, since the 5s. limit for meals was fixed six of seven years ago the costs of the restaurant have been very much increased, first by the rise in the price of food, and secondly by the enormous burden cast upon the restaurant proprietor by the Catering Wages Board. So that restaurants are driven to such devices or extras as I have mentioned in order to provide good food within the limit of the law.

I now come to the three-course rule, the complications of which are quite fantastic. Only one of three courses may be a main dish, and a dish is a main dish if 25 per cent. of its weight is a specified food. Now what is and what is not a specified food? The way the line is drawn is almost incredible. Do hon. Members know that fresh herrings are not a specified food, and therefore not a main dish, whereas kippers and bloaters are? That sole is not specified food but snoek is? That uncooked oysters are not a specified food whereas cooked oysters are? No wonder that foreigners think that all Englishmen are mad; and I am sure that many agree with Lord Ammon, that the Government of which he is a member is completely crazy.

Photo of Sir Edward Keeling Sir Edward Keeling , Twickenham

Has he resigned tonight? Then I should say, that the Government of which he was a member when he called them crazy.

What is the objection to revoking this order? I should like to state the objections as I understand them, and I hope the right hon. Lady will correct me if I am wrong, or perhaps she will name other objections. The first objection is that if the order were revoked more meals might be served because the restaurants would be more attractive, and that would automatically entitle them to more rationed food. But how many restaurants would avail themselves of the opportunity to charge more than 5s? How many more meals would be served? I think that a very useful indication of the answer to that question—though I admit it is not an exact indication—is the number of restaurants which, by means of a house charge, already charge more than 5s. Hon. Members can see in the Library a return dated a few weeks ago which shows that at that date for the whole of the United Kingdom the number of restaurants allowed to make a house charge was only 460. But even allowing for restaurants with no house charge, I think it is quite obvious that the increase in the supplies of rationed food to restaurants, which might result from revoking the order, would be infinitesimal.

Now what about unrationed food, such as chickens? Here again the number of restaurants which would raise their charge above 5s. is so small that the increased consumption would be a bagatelle. So whether we consider rationed food or unrationed food, it seems quite clear that the figures could not support any argument that the revocation of the order would involve any appreciable reduction in supplies to the housewife. That reduction would be a drop in the ocean compared with the dollars which would be earned, and those dollars could be used to buy food, which would be available for the housewife herself.

Why then is the order kept in force? I can find only one answer. The Parliamentary Secretary divulged what I think must be the real reason when she said on 18th May that in these days of austerity we should not encourage ostentatious feeding. That means this: that we can eat the most expensive food when we are crossing the ocean to come to this country, that we can buy the most expensive food in the shops and have it cooked in our homes, but that we must not eat it in a restaurant because that would be ostentatious.

It does seem a little hard that an American or any other tourist who can only use an hotel, and prefers choice food to dull food, should be told that he feeds ostentatiously. It reminds me of the language used by the Parliamentary Secretary a year or so ago when she told us that to like any cheese except imported Cheddar was an acquired taste. Her language seems to me to show that the order is rooted in prejudice and hypocrisy. It is austerity for austerity's sake. It means that in the opinion of the Government if you, Mr. Speaker, or I cannot afford to spend 10s. at a restaurant, no one should be allowed to do so, not even if this dragging of everyone down to the lowest common level, means a big loss to the nation, as it does.

I believe that our people are not such dogs in the manger, and are not so mean, as to take this view. I believe that they have less jealousy, more sense, and more patriotism, than the Government give them credit for. This order which baffles foreigners and makes us a laughing stock, this order which is frequently evaded and only partially enforced, this order which, while it does not appreciably increase the food available to the housewife, seriously lowers the standard of food we offer to tourists, this order which is contrary to the national interest, which outrages common-sense, which panders to class prejudice, should be revoked.

10.22 p.m.

Photo of Mr Terence Donovan Mr Terence Donovan , Leicester East

I very seldom find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling), but I must say that he has made out a formidable case for the revision of this order. I have no personal interest in this matter. I do not eat any lunch, and I find it quite possible to get along on 5s. for my dinner. I went out and back to South Africa last year on a British liner, and I was astonished when the waiter came to me in the tourist lounge and asked whether I would like fish as well as meat. When I asked whether that was really allowed, he in his turn was astonished.

I must say that after feeding on six courses a day for lunch and dinner in a British liner, I did not mind coming back to the semi-austerity of this country. That may be because I am getting a little old and my digestion and appetite are not what they were. I hope that we are not going to maintain these restrictions for their own sake. An aspect of the matter which appears to me to be important is that there are Americans coming to this country who want to spend dollars, and want to spend more than 1¼ dollars on their meal. Could we not allow them to do that?

10.24 p.m.

Photo of Dr Edith Summerskill Dr Edith Summerskill , Fulham West

The hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling) levelled some criticism at British cooking in his opening remarks.

Photo of Dr Edith Summerskill Dr Edith Summerskill , Fulham West

On behalf of the cooks of Britain, I resent those remarks. When the hon. Member comes to consult the OFFICIAL REPORT tomorrow, he will find that he did criticise in no uncertain terms the cooking of British women and, no doubt, British men, in hotels.

Photo of Sir Edward Keeling Sir Edward Keeling , Twickenham

Not a word of truth in that.

Photo of Dr Edith Summerskill Dr Edith Summerskill , Fulham West

He suggested that the level was so low that visitors to this country probably thought very carefully whether they should by-pass Britain because the cooking they would find would prove unpalatable. As I look at the streets of Britain and the streets of London, I think the House will agree that there is no sign of visitors being repelled because of the standard of cooking in this country, yet their dishes are famous the world over. I am surprised to find the hon. Member, who wants to encourage visitors, trying to prevent them from coming here.

Photo of Dr Edith Summerskill Dr Edith Summerskill , Fulham West

My time is limited. I feel that the hon. Gentleman has done something which will not be helpful to the country or the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Photo of Sir Edward Keeling Sir Edward Keeling , Twickenham

The hon. Lady has another 10 minutes in which to reply. I never referred to cooking at all. My whole complaint was that because of this ridiculous order our cooks—and I agree that they are good—are not allowed to cook choice food.

Photo of Dr Edith Summerskill Dr Edith Summerskill , Fulham West

Perhaps the hon. Member will look at HANSARD tomorrow. If he does he will see that my criticism is merited.

The hon. Member instanced cases where the order has been infringed. I am sure that as a public-spirited citizen he will give me details after the Debate, so that we can institute proceedings. I think he mentioned three cases in which this had occurred. The 10s. charge for flowers, for instance, was a complete evasion of the order.

Photo of Dr Edith Summerskill Dr Edith Summerskill , Fulham West

I shall expect the hon. Member to give me details so that my Department can take action forthwith.

In trying to pour ridicule on the order, the hon. Gentleman showed abysmal ignorance of the purposes for which it was framed and before raising a matter of this kind again I would ask him to consult not only representatives of the catering industry but ordinary housewives in his constituency.

Photo of Dr Edith Summerskill Dr Edith Summerskill , Fulham West

If the hon. Member does that he will not make the ludicrous remarks that he has made about this order tonight. In framing the order we tried to include in those foods that are not "specified" those that are not scarce, so that catering establishments would not divert them from the domestic consumer. The hon. Member tried to raise a cheer by mentioning some of them. Certainly, fresh herrings are not specified because in the last few years they have been in plentiful supply, so that it has been unnecessary for us to restrict consumption in catering establishments. He asked why oysters were allowed to be served raw in their shells, but not cooked. He should know that cooked oysters, unlike shell oysters, can be supplied as a specified dish, and that if oysters are used in a sauce or as a garnish they can be used with a specified dish. I do not know whether the hon. Member mentioned anything else. I thought he might have asked why conger eels were specified, and other eels were not—that would have been a question I might have expected. Kippers and bloaters were mentioned: The reason why they were included as specified foods is because, there has been a shortage of kippers and bloaters in the last few years but herrings have been plentiful.

Photo of Dr Edith Summerskill Dr Edith Summerskill , Fulham West

The kippers and bloaters have to be processed.

Photo of Dr Edith Summerskill Dr Edith Summerskill , Fulham West

The kipperers decided not to process, but this year things have changed. The bloater is a popular fish and more will no doubt be processed.

Photo of Sir Edward Keeling Sir Edward Keeling , Twickenham

Does the right hon. Lady deny that cooked oysters are a specified food and count as a main dish, whereas uncooked oysters do not. You can pay 4s. extra and have uncooked oysters, but you cannot have cooked oysters except as a main dish and within the 5s. limit.

Photo of Dr Edith Summerskill Dr Edith Summerskill , Fulham West

You can have cooked oysters within the 5s. limit. You can have raw oysters outside the limit on payment of another 4s. The hon. Gentleman should look up these details. I think they are well-known and he should have asked those who advised him from the catering industry about these simple points, which they know perfectly well. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman, when he recognises defeat, must take it calmly.

Let me come to the big principle involved in this matter. I think the House will remember that only last week it was necessary for my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to tell the country that we had still to tighten our belts. The hon. Gentleman comes here the following week and asks that for a privileged section of the community their belts should be loosened.

Photo of Sir Edward Keeling Sir Edward Keeling , Twickenham

In order to earn more dollars.

Photo of Dr Edith Summerskill Dr Edith Summerskill , Fulham West

The hon. Gentleman must surely recognise in these days that for us to accept such an argument would be grossly unjust and unfair to the great majority of the people of the country. He talks about the tourist trade. Unfortunately he looks at the problem through the eyes of those who can afford to stay at the Savoy and the Dorchester. He seems to forget that among these visitors, thousands of whom are in this country today, are big groups of professional people, students and so on, who would be appalled at the thought that we in this House were considering removing the maximum price in order to help the tourists.

The hon. Gentleman must realise that these people of modest means from the United States who bring dollars here probably find that they prefer to stay here a little longer than to go to France, because they know exactly the amount they will have to pay for a meal, whereas when they go across the Channel they are a little afraid that the sum of money earmarked for their European trip will not be enough for them to complete their trip. I would say that the hon. Member must try to address himself to the needs of people with modest incomes, and the great majority of people in this world, whether in this country, or in others, have modest incomes.

Now let me say something about the complex charges. The hon. Member gave details of the five shillings maximum, the house charge, and so on. But really the hon. Member must not underestimate the intelligence of our visitors. They are quite capable of learning about these charges. Many of these visitors have friends here; many are conducted by guides. The hon. Member also is asking that the maximum charge shall be raised. He did not say so, but I presume the sky is the limit. But still visitors will have to make certain calculations when they go into hotels. They will have to calculate the amount they will have to pay just the same. It might even be that when they see the final account, they will think they are being exploited, whereas all they feel now, as the hon. Member said, is, perhaps, a little bewilderment; although it is curious that I have not yet met one visitor from abroad—and I meet many—who has complained.

I would say that the argument which has been advanced tonight is based on pure speculation. The hon. Member believes that if we were to revoke this order, it would be in the interest of the tourist. I say that while the hon. Member speculates, I have no doubt about what the effect would be in one quarter—among the housewives of this country.

Photo of Dr Edith Summerskill Dr Edith Summerskill , Fulham West

The housewives of this country, who seldom have an opportunity to enjoy meals outside their homes, often feel that the food consumed in catering establishments should be diverted to the domestic ration. I have on other occasions had to explain why it is necessary to allow a certain proportion of rationed and unrationed foodstuffs to be consumed in catering establishments; but if we did what the hon. Member suggests we should do, the housewives would be incensed; removal of these particular restrictions would mean that more unrationed food would be consumed in catering establishments.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty-four Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.