Orders of the Day — Nutrition

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 15th December 1949.

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Photo of Dr Leslie Haden-Guest Dr Leslie Haden-Guest , Islington North 12:00 am, 15th December 1949

I am very glad to have the opportunity of taking part in this important Debate. My interjection about medical statistics was due to the fact that this Debate is one which pre-eminently ought to be kept as far above the ordinary party level as possible. This is a matter with which every citizen and every Member of Parliament, on whatever side of the House he sits, is intimately concerned.

I want to draw attention to the fact that the White Paper on "Food consumption levels in the United Kingdom"—I have heard all the speeches up to now, but as far as I am aware, this fact has not been mentioned—sets out the position regarding the distribution, and not the consumption, of food. It shows what food is available. It must be remembered that the present situation with regard to what food is consumable, is very different from what it was in, for instance, the inter-war years. In those years there was food for those who could buy it, but there were Very large numbers of people who could not buy it because they did not have the money. That is a very vital difference between then and now.

Take, for instance, the well-known fact that in the early part of this century a very great deal of poverty, malnutrition and disease arose from these conditions of poverty, and that now, when everyone, because we have for all intents and purposes full employment, has the money with which to make purchases, those conditions do not arise in the same way. Having the money to buy the food is just as important as having the food available.

Listening to the speeches this afternoon I could not help feeling that some hon. Members, at any rate, do not realise how very poor were many of our people in the inter-war years. I remember a little street called Ethelm Street, behind the Union Jack Club, opposite Waterloo Station. Possibly by this time that street has been renamed or there has been a reconstruction; I have not been there for a year or two. When I used to be a school doctor in that neighbourhood before the First World War and visited people in that street, it was commonplace to see children running about in no other clothing than a shirt and to go into houses and find the utmost destitution and poverty inside. As far as I am aware, those conditions are not now found anywhere in the London area. Conditions of that kind are a measure of the poverty which then existed.

At that time I was one of the first people in London to conduct a food experiment in the Addington Street school for the London County Council. A very large proportion of the children were extraordinarily badly fed. When they were given good food they did not at first know how to digest it, and actually for the first week or two went down in weight and not upward. Those conditions help to illustrate the distance we have since travelled.

Much of the London County Council school feeding which has been done in past years has had admirable results. I wish to point out the changing conditions over the years and to remind hon. Members of the reports of the investigation carried out by Mr. Seebohm Rowntree and recorded in his extraordinarily valuable book, "Poverty and Progress." Let me give a quotation relating to the conditions of people in the town of York, whose position was paralleled, unfortunately, in many towns and villages all over the country, in those not so long ago days of the 1930's. The book was published in 1935. This is what Mr. Rowntree said: Thirty per cent. of the workers have incomes so small that it is beyond their means to live even at the stringently economic level adopted as a minimum in this survey…. Almost half the children of working-class parents spend the first five years of their lives in poverty and almost a third of them live below the poverty line for ten years or more. Those conditions have now disappeared—I hope, permanently.

In 1935, in the area where my duties as a candidate took me in the county of Brecon, I inquired what amount of meat the miners were then getting. I was told that the weekly joint for the families of miners in many homes cost 1s. 6d. They certainly did not have a very large quantity of meat, and to some of them no doubt this represented the dinner they had on Sunday.

How different are conditions today. Young people of the generation of the 1920's can hardly believe how badly placed were their parents in the years which have gone. Within a few years the young people will look back on records and such things as medical reports of school doctors, the reports of Mr. Seebohm Rowntree's book and things of that kind, almost as fairy tales; yet they are true, and those conditions might even return if the deplorable advice given by the hon. and gallant Member for Pudsey and Otley (Colonel Stoddart-Scott) were taken and food rationing was abolished. Food rationing, price control and strict control are absolutely essential in order to maintain the nutrition of this country at the proper level. We do not live in a vacuum; we live in a world in which there are patches of poverty where the demand for food is much greater than here.

I was talking to an eminent Indian statesman not long ago—it was a private meeting—and he said to me, "How wonderful it is that during this first year of the liberation of India we have been able to give all the people of India a handful of rice every day, and that there has been no famine." Think of the difference between that level and the level at which the people of this country live. We are living at a very high standard of nutrition. The vigour and vitality of the nation are very great, and food rationing, price control and subsidies are all necessary in order to maintain that standard. The policy is a very good one, and I believe that the results, as shown in this White Paper on Food Consumption Levels in the United Kingdom are of the utmost possible importance.

Before I sit down, I should like to ask my right hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary if she can answer one or two questions. Can she say what is the condition of different groups of the population as regards nutrition, and, if that is not known, could a survey be made to determine it? As to the condition of the children, I do not think there is much doubt about that being very good. Could she also say what is the condition of workers in factories, in agriculture, and, particularly, the condition of old people and sick people living on pensions and allowances, either in their own homes, in institutions, or who are being looked after by relations? Is there a difference between the workers in the towns and in the countryside?

I want to have the technique of the Rowntree investigation of York applied to other sections of the population in order that we may get a view, not only of distribution, but of the effects of consumption. I believe it would show that the people of this country are at a higher standard of nutrition than the people of any other country in Europe, and that that high standard can gradually be increased in future as the admirable policy of this Government over the years produces even better results than it has up to the present time.'