This Vote contains two substantial sums. Of the first, I only want to say one word and to put it in a form of a question. For what reason is the Minister asking for £4¼ million for the payment to the British Sugar Corporation. Can the Parliamentary Secretary say whether this £4¼ million is occasioned because of the bumper sugar beet harvest which agriculture has given this country, and can he also say whether, in fact, although £4¼ million extra has to be paid under this head, there will be accrued to the nation an even larger sum owing to the increased amount of Excise Duty paid on beet sugar?
Passing from that to subheading M, we find an item of £3 million for the purchase and storage of emergency reserves of food. This question is, in some way, a continuation of the inquiry which we made yesterday on the reserve stockpiling by the Ministry of Supply and the Board of Trade. There exist great differences between this Vote and what we were discussing yesterday, but, if this represents the amount of stockpiling in food, it appears to be a very small proportion of the total stockpiling programme.
We gather that the total stockpiling programme in food amounts to £75 million, and yet this year only £3 million of that programme is being carried out. Will the Parliamentary Secretary tell us why that is happening? Why are we not adopting the policy which, as we were told yesterday, the Ministry of Supply has adopted, of having a large proportion of the programme carried out in this financial year? The conviction is growing in this country that very little has been done and is being done about providing emergency reserves of food, and it appears that, if the Government had, in fact, embarked on this programme earlier in this financial year, not only would this country be more secure, but also the Government would have saved a very considerable sum of money.
We want details of why this Government is a belated stockpiler and seems to be indulging in a policy of too little and too late. It would appear that, far from piling up stocks, this Government and this Minister have been running down stocks of food during the last nine months. Ever since he came into office the right hon. Gentleman has taken on the rôle of that well known king of England, King Canute, believing that by giving some rather ineffective commands he could stop the rising tide of increased food prices. As a result he has not obtained the food available in any of the markets because he has refused to pay the world prices for food.
It appears, therefore, that this £3 million wants careful investigation. We want to know what food stocks are involved in stockpiling. May I at this juncture recall to the House what happened during the last war and at the end of the last war? At the end of the last war, when the Government came into power, there had been amassed in this country considerable reserves of foodstuffs. In wheat these amounted to between 16 and 18 weeks' supply. It appears that in the intervening 5½ years we have dissipated the whole of those food stocks and at the same time enjoyed a meagre standard of living. I say that notwithstanding anything the Minister of Food may have said last weekend, that anybody who said we had not enjoyed a high standard was in a certain condition of mental disorder. In fact Britain has enjoyed a lower standard of foodstuffs in the last few years than any of the neighbouring countries, at the same time as running down her foodstocks.
When we were discussing this subject before the last war, I remember the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. A. Bevan) who is now Minister of Labour, addressing some remarks to the Minister in charge who was then my right hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. W. S. Morrison). The right hon. Gentleman said this:
In view of the importance of wheat as a staple food … is it not desirable, both for economic and military reasons, that very large stocks of it should be accumulated in Great Britain?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th July. 1939: Vol. 350, c. 401–2.]
Many hon. Members in all parts of the House take the view that we would be more secure in war if we had considerable stocks of wheat. It is quite true that the £3 million we are discussing today represents only the value today of one week's supply of wheat.
What is the wheat position? Apparently imports for 1950 of wheat and flour were the equivalent of 76 million cwt., that is 34 million cwt. less than the imports in 1949 and previous years. We should be told at this time why the Government last year did not stockpile wheat; why, indeed, we bought a great deal less wheat than we guaranteed to take under the International Wheat Agreement, which was 95 million cwt. of wheat or flour during the wheat year. During that time our wheat stocks declined considerably, so that today we have about 11 to 12 weeks' supply in this country.
In an excellent article dealing with the stock position in this country the "Economist" recently stated that our wheat and flour stocks had been run down by about 6½ million cwt. That shows clearly that wheat consumption has gone down in the past year, just as imports have done. It appears, therefore, that the policy of the Government in building up emergency reserves does not include wheat. I ask the hon. Gentleman why the Government have taken this line over wheat During the summer of last year there was available on the North American continent about 220 million cwt. of wheat surplus which we could have bought. Yet we kept out of that market and did not buy wheat which could then have been bought at a reasonable price. The Argentine last year started with a surplus of 60 million cwt. of wheat. Every advice from that country suggested that Britain would be going into the Argen-time market to buy wheat. Today all that 60 million surplus of that year's wheat has disappeared, and nearly all the surplus of the coming crop has already been sold to countries other than Britain, so that only 12 million cwt. of it is left unsold. It appears, therefore, that here again the Government have been too late. They cannot now buy wheat from the United States. The United States recently sold India 40 million cwt. of wheat and now they have stopped exporting. So what wheat is bought by us will have to be bought at a high price later on.
Turning from wheat to coarse grains, in 1939 we built up a considerable stock of that commodity. Our maize imports during the last year have been far less than before the war. Not only that, but they have been 7 million cwt. less than in 1948. Other countries have been stocking up in coarse grains and in feeding-stuffs. This Government, under this Minister, appear to have taken no steps to stock up in coarse grains against an emergency.
When the Government talk in this Vote of essential foodstuffs which might be difficult to obtain in an emergency, we must consider what is the governing factor in the stockpiling of food. That is the question of the length of the carry; in other words, it is better to stockpile a commodity which requires a long and dangerous haul in time of war than one which involves only a short haul. Another but similar point of view is that commodities which are difficult to convey in time of war should be bought now.
On those two grounds this Government should have been stockpiling sugar at the present time. After all, in the war we found that sugar coming to us from the Caribbean and from the West Indies needed double the haul of the grain coming from the North American continent. Quite clearly there was plenty of sugar available for the Government to have brought supplies during the last year. I noticed that in a speech at the annual meeting of Tate and Lyle, Lord Lyle said that at present the Government could have some 2½million tons of sugar from the Empire. That would have been quite sufficient both for stockpiling and also for ending the sugar ration, and so letting the housewife buy all the sugar she requires.
The Minister should give us an explanation of what he has been doing with regard to sugar buying during the last 12 months. It is true that sugar imports have been larger than they were in the previous year; they are 2,750,000 tons, whereas in the previous year they were 2,500,000 tons, but at the same time the Government have been profligate in exporting that sugar, so that sugar exports have increased from 500,000 tons to 750,000 tons, and in the end we have actually less retained imports this year than last year. It may be that we have earned dollars, but have we gained in security? Again using the "Economist" figures, we find that our sugar stocks are at just about the level of last year; in fact, they are 30,000 tons more this year than they were last year. There was an opportunity, and still is an opportunity, to stockpile in sugar and thereby to save shipping in time of war and give the people the assurance of larger household supplies at the present time.
I want to mention one other commodity which those with experience at the Ministry of Food found most difficult to stockpile during the war. It is dried fruit, which comes either from Australia or from the eastern end of the Mediterranean. If it comes from the eastern end of the Mediterranean, then in a war like the last dried fruit has to be carried from the Eastern Mediterranean, down the Suez Canal, round Africa and across to North America, and then be brought over in that way. A wise Government would stockpile dried fruit in order to save that carry in time of war. All the evidence shows that our stocks of dried fruit are today lower than they have ever been. Our imports last year were down by 100,000 tons.
I find it very hard to see what this £3 million represents. It is clearly not wheat; it is unlikely to be sugar; clearly it is not coarse grains, and clearly it is not dried fruit. One thing is abundantly clear—it is not carcase meat or corned meat. I notice that in another place a noble Lord, speaking for the Government on the question of food, stated that the stocks of carcase meat during the last 12 months have dropped by 200,000 tons. In 1950 we consumed about 2,300,000 tons of which, he said, some came from stocks, and the amount that came from supplies was 2,100,000 tons. So we are not stockpiling in carcase meat nor, indeed, are we stockpiling in corned meat.
Hon. Members in all parts of the House must be deeply concerned from the security angle as to what has been happening over corned meat. The consumption last year was 13,000 tons more than the imports of corned meat. During the last two months for which we have records, December and January, the imports of corned meat amounted to some 2,800 tons, and we have consumed 27,000 tons in those two months. How much longer can we go on with this policy of eating up our stocks of corned meat? If war comes, then either for military operations or for Civil Defence we shall want every pound or ton of corned meat on which we can lay hands. It would appear that the Government, owing to their obstinacy in their bulk trading negotiations with certain countries, are squandering the corned meat supplies which we would require in war.
The hon. Member has stated a very reasoned case up to now, but I think the introduction of that note about bulk buying has rather affected his reasoned case. I am sure he remembers the Essential Commodities Act before the war, and that bulk buying of important commodities such as those with which he is dealing took place on a very big scale.
The charge I made was not that the Government had bulk bought, but that they had been obstinate in their methods, as a Government monopoly, state-trading on these bulk purchase lines. Quite clearly bulk purchase is carried on and was carried on by private enterprise, or by Governments, but what has distinguished the present Minister and his predecessor from previous bulk purchasers has been their obstinacy and the way in which they have hurled about charges, such as blackmail, against those countries with which they are negotiating. We have not the carcase meat, we are living on stocks, and unfortunately we have been dissipating those corned meat stocks which we shall require should an emergency come.
The "Economist" made a very careful calculation of our stocks in these different commodities. Their figures show a considerable run-down in stocks of wheat, of flour, of carcase meat, of bacon and ham, of butter, of cheese and of tea. I calculated that to wipe out that run-down and build up our stocks in 1951 to where they stood just before the General Election in 1950 would require at present prices £38 million at the present date, and I have given the Government credit for the increase in sugar stocks of 30,000 tons. Over all, £38 million is required. We are presented today with a bill for £3 million. I ask the hon. Gentleman to say what is represented by that £3 million and whether he has taken into calculation the fact that he and his Minister have run down stocks by £38 million.
I also ask that in his reply he should tell the country about his plans for the storage of these essential reserves. During the war, the Ministers responsible built up a very valuable storage system in this country. There were not only privately-owned silos and stores, but some 15 Government-erected large silos and food stores and, in addition, small buffer depots—many of them iron shelters—scattered in hundreds all over the country.
What has happened to these food stores? To my knowledge a great deal of that space has now passed out of our control. A great many of the food stores have either been handed back for other purposes or have been destroyed. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary what steps he is taking as a part of our re-armament plan to re-create storage space scattered all over the country, under proper dispersal arrangements, so that we might have somewhere to put these essential reserves for which we are voting money today.
I believe it would be tragic if the Government went in for a policy of extensive building of food stores which would interfere with our housing programme and with the programme of civil engineering which will be required for defence purposes. I believe that if the Government attacked the problem energetically, they would find, on farms and in many of the large houses which are becoming uninhabited, or nearly uninhabited, ample space to be earmarked for the storage of food in emergency. I beg the Government to take early action in this matter before it is too late. There will be other demands for that space, and it is vitally important to get storage room early.
I, like other of my hon. Friends, am concerned about this problem of the emergency food reserves. It may well be that we have not great confidence in either the present Minister or the past Minister. We have seen a succession of mishandled problems and muddles, whether groundnuts, or eggs from Gambia which we discussed last week. We feel that the right hon. Gentleman is adding to them by the way in which he is tackling this question of food stocks. We believe, from all the evidence that we can gather, that this £3 million is an unreal figure, and we ask him to give replies to the questions I have asked.
We have heard an interesting speech from the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton), but it occurs to me that if we are to have an open discussion in this House on the individual items which it is the duty of the Government to buy in different parts of the world in order to stockpile in the event of emergency, we are obviously inviting those people who own such stocks to increase prices against the Government when they endeavour to make such purchases.
Surely it should be obvious to any business person that if the Government have to buy food in the world markets today, and it is well known that there are not any large quantities in any part of the world, the Government must be free to make such purchases in a businesslike way without having it noticed all over the world that they are doing so or are about to do so. Otherwise, whether it be £3 million or £30 million which is set aside for the purpose, it will buy much less, and the people of this country will be disadvantaged to that extent.
I should have thought that it would have been wise policy on the part of the Government to have gone about such a matter quietly, and have used their discretion, knowing what are the stocks in the country and where any stocks of food are available or are likely to become available. Accordingly, I should doubt the wisdom of a discussion along the lines of the questions which have been asked by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton.
As the hon. Member is doubting the wisdom of my hon. Friend, may I put it to him that these are Supplementary Estimates for the year ending 31st March this year—which is a fortnight hence. Therefore, this £3 million which is to be expended ought by now to have bought what it was intended to buy.
It should also be obvious to the hon. and gallant Member that if it was necessary to buy certain foods up to 31st March this year, so it would also be necessary to buy after that date; and that any discussion on the current year's Supplementary Estimates applies also to next year.
We are not allowed to go so far, but I should have thought that the principle was the same, and that the question of the wisdom of a discussion on the lines to which I have referred would have been the same.
We have seen a complete change on the part of hon. Members opposite in that until quite recently they were urging His Majesty's Ministers to disperse the stocks which were held in store in various parts of the country. Question after question has been hurled across the Floor of the House by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton about stocks of coarse grain which he knew existed, and which he and others have said ought to have been sold to the farmers and the stock keepers of the country——
The hon. Member has made reference to certain questions I have asked. They were asked because that coarse grain had been improperly stored and was becoming weevil infested, and as a result had to be sold at a considerable loss.
In one or two cases that is true, but the general principle behind the questions of hon. Gentlemen opposite was that these stocks should be dispersed to the poultry and pig farmers of the country. That was the line taken up to quite a short time ago, so that not a great deal of foresight has informed the attitude which hon. Members opposite are now adopting.
If we are to carry out a policy of stockpiling such as is indicated in this modest Supplementary Estimate, then it will be necessary to restrict to the consuming public supplies that become available. In his reference to sugar, for example, the hon. Gentleman made reference to a statement by Lord Lyle, as the head of Tate and Lyle Limited, that it would be possible to deration sugar—that the housewife could have all the sugar she liked. Yet the hon. Member now says that it would at the same time also be possible to stockpile large quantities of sugar. From that it can only be inferred that there are very big supplies available to this country which have not to be purchased abroad because if we purchase sugar abroad with some of the sterling or dollars available we must have less of something else—of timber, or coarse grains or other commodities—which has to be bought and transported in ships.
If the hon. Member would like to know the figure Lord Lyle gave, it was that the amount of Empire sugar available is 2,500,000 tons. According to the present Minister of National Insurance if we had 2,300,000 tons we should not require sugar rationing. That would allow a balance of 200,000 tons for stockpiling, which is six times the amount of our present stocks.
If the estimate of the amount available is true, but I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would stake his reputation that it is true. It may very well be that certain quantities are available but to say that today we could do the two things, namely, free sugar from rationing both to domestic consumers and manufacturers, and at the same time stockpile against our future requirements, can only mean that somewhere there are mountains of sugar available.
It is true that this year we have had in this country the best crop of beet sugar we have ever had. There are, however, indications that the coming season will be one of the worst, and that on the basis of averages any surplus we may have over and above our immediate requirements for this year of home-produced sugar may very well be neces- sary to make up the deficiencies of the coming sugar beet crop. Therefore, there is not, as I see the matter, a lot in that argument.
Again, the hon. Member referred to coarse grains and how, before the war, in 1938–39, we had been able to build up big stocks. Well I remember that, as a farmer, and how it was achieved. In 1938 importers brought in large quantities of grain from the Continent and elsewhere with the result that the farmers in this country could not get more than 6s. per cwt. for the barley they had grown. If that is the way to stockpile, as was done 12 years ago, it would be disastrous to the whole system of guaranteed prices to the farming community. It is quite true that we need more coarse grains to feed our increasing stocks of poultry, pigs and cattle, but if during this current period we are also to build up large stockpiles, then surely some of those must go hungry.
We are faced with a very difficult problem indeed. As regards both the quantities available in the world at large and our ability as a country to pay the fising prices of coarse grains in world markets, we shall have difficulties in getting through. Quite clearly it will be difficult to purchase abroad all the coarse grains we need in order to feed our existing farm stocks, quite apart from stockpiling, and the Ministry of Food or whoever is in charge of affairs, whether under a Labour or a Conservative Government or even, for example, under a National Government, would have the greatest difficulties in meeting all our requirements.
What is needed, above all else, is that there should be maintained at the Ministry of Food the whole machinery for purchasing the imported feedingstuffs for our cattle—that is most essential. I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton is now wholeheartedly in favour of this policy, whereas up to only a few weeks ago he and his hon. Friends were advocating that all the work now being done in this respect by the Ministry of Food should be thrown over to private enterprise, who should be allowed to do it, as they did it in 1938, to the detriment of our own producers of feedingstuffs.
I hope, therefore, that not only will the Ministry of Food be very wary in what they say about what they are doing, but that they will strengthen their arm and all the powers they possess, in order to ensure to the country the most economical and efficient purchasing of the food which is needed for direct human consumption. What is of equal importance is the buying of feedingstuffs, so that our increasing flocks and herds can be well fed, for our farms are the best place in which to do any stockpiling to meet the requirements of the future.
Although I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the subject of the debate, I should have preferred to hear the Minister's statement before raising the various issues on which we should like information, because obviously, in trying to obtain elucidation on some of the facts under discussion, it is better to know at the outset as much about the position as the Minister is able to tell us.
I support my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton), who opened the debate, in asking for the fullest details of the £4¼ million that is to go to the British Sugar Corporation. Is it the Government's intention to recoup any of this expenditure? We know that there is a difference in price, both to the public and to the trade, and obviously, from the point of view of the subsidy, a great deal will be gained by permitting much of this amount to go to the trade. Is it the Government's intention that some of this £4¼ million will be recouped, presumably, by an increase in the price of sugar, as Was done yesterday in the case of tea, or what other intentions has the Minister? Many of us sincerely hope that the country will not have to meet this increased cost; yet on the face of things, if we are to keep prices stable, I gather that there is really no alternative. The additional beet sugar which we are to get will account in a large measure for these increased costs, and this is a matter of very great importance.
Turning to the question of the £3 million for emergency reserves, I support fully the views of my hon. Friend, but I feel that the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Dye), has missed the whole point of the argument, because even if we were to support the Government's bulk buying, this figure of £3 million would be affected. Without entering into an argument on whether bulk buying is right or wrong, I feel that if bulk buying did not exist and the trade itself were responsible for supplies today, then the trade would obviously be carrying very much larger stocks than the Government might think are necessary or indeed, possible.
I feel very strongly that private enterprise trade could get supplies which in many instances the Government simply cannot get. I am not trying to be disrespectful to those in the Government, but this really is something which is not "up their street." They do not have all the contacts which private enterprise has, nor the tremendous knowledge which supports those in private enterprise in obtaining the stocks which are required.
I am not referring specifically to sugar, although I intend to refer to that commodity in a moment. I refer to things like milk power, dried eggs and supplies of that kind, and even cornflour, for which the Government are responsible and which are issued to the trade. Had private enterprise had the chance, it certainly would not have limited itself by 31st March to an additional expenditure, as is reflected in the Supplementary Estimate, of only £3 million. In this respect the Government's policy is harmful.. If trouble were to come, we know that obviously there would be tremendous limitations.
Although it is a commodity which could be done without at a time of crisis, I feel it is worth while mentioning, particularly the question of cornflour. Recent allocations to the trade have been very much delayed because there were not sufficient stocks immediately available to enable supplies to come forward. There are many instances where the stockpiling by the Government is definitely breaking down. This is one of the unfortunate effects of their policy of bulk buying.
My hon. Friend dealt also with the storage of stocks in the country. I think it is common knowledge that, particularly during the war and subsequently, the storage of much of the Government's bulk supplies and emergency reserves called for much better attention than was in fact exercised. I believe that this was gener- ally known by the officers concerned. In food factories, the greatest care has to be taken by manufacturers in the handling of stocks. They are subject to visits by one officer after another with the right—even the Ministry of Agriculture now have this right—to go into the food factories, to make just and proper criticisms and to ask for certain action to be taken, even to the length of goods being destroyed if those carrying out the inspections decide that certain items have to be condemned. I assure hon. Members that this process would get out of hand in the various storage places of the Government throughout the country. The premises they chose should have received much better attention, and if, as we all sincerely hope, it is intended to increase the stockpiles that we shall need, I trust that storage will receive much better attention than it has received so far.
The way the stock is turned over is vital for such materials as wheat, which is subject to weevil and other causes of deterioration. I can assure the Minister that in the last few years milk powder supplied from the Government has been in shocking condition and the manufacturers themselves have had to say, "We will not have those supplies." There was no alternative. It was not because the milk powder produced was in any way bad; it was only because of the bad storage under the control of the Ministry. It is, therefore, important to have good storage in any stockpiling of foodstuffs which are subject to weevil and other causes of deterioration, and I ask the Minister to take all necessary precautions when he begins to develop this policy. The storage premises must be good; the supervision must be good; and the stocks must be turned over very carefully in the order in which they come into this country.
Private enterprise trade does come into general storage quite a lot. I am referring to places which I am sure the hon. Gentleman must have seen, commandeered by the Government, such as cinemas and theatres.
The hon. Gentleman is wrong there. They have been going gradually up to now, but I am saying that in the last four to five years in particular the poor quality of some of the storage space has been very noticeable. In many instances the Government have had to write stocks off; they have deteriorated so badly that the Government have had to call it a day. If we are to start stockpiling, it may have to be done very gradually, because we cannot go round the world shouting that we are buying this or buying that, otherwise we are bound to suffer. As the Minister begins this gradual stockpiling, more care should be taken than has been taken in the past over storage; otherwise the country suffers, not only economically but in wastage of food supplies.
I should like to know what is included in the £3 million up to 31st March. I cannot seriously believe that it would be giving anything away to give us a general list of what is contained in this figure. Hon. Members differ as to what type of stocks we should carry, but we should have some information about what the Government believe to be the position.
On sugar I want to be very frank. There is no party issue involved. No doubt the statement made by Lord Lyle the other day, backed by all the advice he has to his hand, would be accurate. But the statement of the Minister—and again I am not hitting at the Minister personally—is more guess work than Lord Lyle's statement. Lord Lyle said that supplies to the extent of 2,600,000 tons were available. The Ministry's belief of a consumption of 2,300,000 tons may well be wide of the mark. Not only will the figure have changed since that statement was made, but there are other governing factors.
One governing factor which no one should forget is the price factor. No doubt many people would buy greater supplies if they had the money to do so. Today the housewife has only a certain amount of money, and as prices rise she buys less. That is to be seen in proprietary articles and other things. It therefore depends on the Government's policy on, for instance, sugar. If the policy is to put up the price of sugar in due course—which may unfortunately happen—that must cut consumption, although there would be a tremendous rush on it to start with. Although I readily admit that sugar is one of the cheapest articles the housewife buys, if a woman has £1 to spend she can buy only so much sugar, and if the price goes up, her consumption is cut. That is understood and recognised everywhere in the trade today by anybody who is concerned with the public spending ability, and I believe that price can be a governing factor.
I do not think the Minister could possibly have had sufficiently up-to-date advice to know whether or not his figure of 2,300,000 tons is accurate. It is almost impossible to judge that when people's palates have changed so much in five years. In the last four or five years people's tastes have changed. An article may be selling very fast one day, but almost overnight people change to some other type of food. Considerable change has naturally been brought about by the limitation of supplies. When something the public have not seen for years suddenly becomes available, they will buy it.
The sugar problem is a very difficult one. It is our contention that there should be a certain stockpiling of sugar, but the Government would obviously have to proceed very cautiously in reaching a stage when they could de-ration sugar. I want to be very frank about this, because it is a most difficult problem. I think a gradual increase in the allowance of sugar to the public is, in principle, the soundest way to tackle the problem. That does not mean to say that we should not get all the supplies we can. I agree that we must get all the sugar that is available. We have been advised, particularly on the colonial side, that more sugar could be obtained.
To be perfectly frank. Sir Charles. I thought it might. I said earlier that I did not know what the £3 million included, but I was hoping it would include a certain amount of sugar, and, with your permission, I should like to answer the hon. Gentleman. I believe that we have taken so long in telling the Colonies what they could go ahead producing that they have not stepped up production to the maximum, with the result that at this moment there is no additional sugar to buy. I believe that we could have had more sugar if we had given the Colonies the incentive to produce it.
Surely the fact is that today we buy from the West Indies every scrap of sugar they will produce. Indeed, we have given them a contract for the future and they have asked for a longer contract. Lord Lyle is saying that the whole of that contract should be torn up. Is that the policy the hon. Gentleman is recommending?
I should make it clear that I am not tied to Lord Lyle's views on this subject. I know that the hon. Member is very knowledgeable on the subject of the West Indies, and I do not think be believes that the West Indies could supply us with more sugar. They could have done so if we had moved more quickly after the war. I am anxious that we should stockpile sugar to a certain degree, and I do not think it would be to the benefit of the country suddenly to deration sugar. That must be done very carefully. We all sincerely hope that sugar will soon be derationed, but I have never made the statement that it can be derationed quickly. That is a very tricky question.
I am anxious to see details of the buildup of this £3 million. I am anxious to ensure that the way in which the Government carry out stockpiling is most carefully watched but, at the same time, speeded up to the maximum. I do not think that we are going fast enough. I am afraid that, when the details are disclosed, many essentials which we should like to be included will not be there. My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr Turton) referred to wheat. We very much doubt if this figure can contain very much wheat.
Another matter which I wish to discuss is the figure of £4,797,970 under "Trading Services." Is it possible for us to be given some idea of the details of the build-up of that sum of money? I presume that this is a marginal profit, in some form or other, which was incurred by the Ministry in their handling of certain foodstuffs. At the moment they are following the policy of cutting margins as tightly as they can, but I know that they do not practice that policy in their own Department. They do not mind taking the biggest margin that they can get. I should like to know what the average marginal profit is in this figure.
Yes, Sir. I suppose that I am. This is rather a difficult matter, because we are dealing with a sum of £10 on this Vote, whereas we want to talk about a sum of over £7 million. If we talk about what has been done with the £7 million, can we not talk about what has been saved? Otherwise, I do not see how we can talk about anything, because there is only £10 on the Vote. If we cannot talk about the expenditure of the £7 million, I should like to know what we can talk about.
I suppose it is unusual for the Government to be able to refer to a saving. A saving is such a unique circumstance that it seems to be worth talking about. However, Sir, I accept your Ruling. I shall have to seek some other opportunity to ask for, information.
I conclude by asking the Minister to be good enough to give as much detail as he can, within the bounds of security, of the build-up of the £3 million. Also, I should like to know the details of the build-up of the £4,797,970. Is there any chance in the next year of getting back some of this expenditure; or is it expected that a similar large expenditure will have to take place in future, although we have heard that such a large amount of beet sugar may not be available? I presume that that would cause another financial complication. If we go ahead with the stockpiling of food, can we be assured that, for this £3 million, we shall be able to store it under the best possible conditions so that we can get the best value from it and so that it will not deteriorate?
I apologise for the fact that I do not propose to follow the subject under discussion—namely, the important one of stockpiling—except to say that, in view of its importance, I am surprised that, since the time is given to the Opposition to raise this matter, there is such a small number of hon. Members opposite.
May I explain to the hon. Gentleman that we on this side of the House believe that those who know something about a subject should concentrate on it? That is what we are trying to do.
Since I assume, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that you do not intend to make any reply to that point of order, in view of its stupid origin, I should like to refer to the reason I have intervened in this debate. I want to make a few observations on the stupid, contemptible and reprehensible conduct of the Opposition in moving the Prayers in the way they did last night.
I have no intention whatever of discussing the savings. I am simply using this opportunity of making what comments I have to make, because that printed Subhead is contained on page 68. I have no intention of making any reference to savings. My purpose was to say that these administrative services are affected by what His Majesty's Opposition care to do in this matter of Prayers.
There is a fine point of difference. Naturally, I accept the Ruling of the Chair that it would be improper and out of order for me to discuss the savings—in other words, that it would be improper for me to make any reference to the sum of £14,470. All that I am doing, I submit, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, is to use the fact that Subhead C, "Special Services and General Administrative Expenses," is contained in this Vote to make some pointed observations on the behaviour of His Majesty's Opposition——
Naturally, I accept your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and I hasten to assure you that I have no intention of discussing savings at all. I am merely using this opportunity, as I believe I am entitled to do, to draw attention to the reprehensible conduct of hon. Members opposite in pursuing the course that they have——
I have warned the hon. Gentleman several times that I am not going to have savings discussed, and, if he continues to do so, I shall ask him to resume his seat.
Naturally, I defer to your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, though I will merely repeat once again that I have no intention whatsoever of referring to that saving. I am merely using this opportunity, since the general administrative services are one of the subheads in the Vote, to make a few concise and to-the-point observations upon the conduct of His Majesty's Opposition.
On that point, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I would assure you that it is not in any way linked up with the savings, because His Majesty's Opposition have no regard for these Estimates at all. They are quite incapable of understanding them. Therefore, any behaviour to which I am going to refer would in no way be related to the matter of savings. I rose in order to draw attention to the reprehensible, stupid, contemptible behaviour of His Majesty's Opposition——
I will now pass, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, to the next point that I wish to make, and it is that I wish to make reference to the behaviour of the Opposition and, in particular, if I may, to the personal conduct of the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Bristol, North-West (Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite)——
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. Since I am compelled by your Ruling to resume my seat, I must give notice that, in view of what happened last night, I shall take the earliest possible opportunity of making personal reflections upon the behaviour of the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Bristol, North-West.
Perhaps we may now return to discussion of the matter raised so ably and clearly by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton). I should like to refer to the speech of the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Dye). It seemed to me that, if we were to take his advice—if we were not to ask for such information as we are doing this afternoon—we should never be able to find out anything, because we should always be told that it was not in somebody's interest to give it. It is of vital, overriding importance that the Government should give at least an assurance that our stocks of food are adequate in the light of the present international situation.
The hon. Member mentioned a number of matters on which he wanted assurances. That seems to be a perfectly proper thing to do at the moment. The hon. Member for Norfolk South-West said that it would be extremely difficult to stockpile. That is so, and everybody realises it, but sometimes difficulties must be overridden in the light of the public need.
I agree, but if the hon. and gallant Gentleman believes that, where is the logic in coming to the House and opposing the very orders which are made to restrict consumption by the general public so that we can stockpile?
I will tell the hon. Gentleman. There have been large storages of food in my constituency which I have asked should be dispersed. The reason is that they have been infested by rats and have deteriorated, and it was obviously common sense that the Government should have dispersed them earlier. That will always happen if we are ever to have reserves of any sort in this country. It will always be a question of turnover. The hon. Member is entirely wrong in what he is suggesting. We are suggesting, and we always have done, that the turnover should be larger in volume than it has been in the past.
My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North (Mr. F. Harris), has an interest, perhaps a vested interest, in the matter of food. I also have a vested interest in the matter. While at the moment, when we are re-arming, it is very difficult to single out one subject as being absolutely essential to the life of the country, there can be no doubt that if the Government fail to build up sufficient supplies of food here, they will have betrayed the trust of the people. No expenditure of money upon rearmament, no expenditure of money on guns, ships and aeroplanes, can possibly protect this country unless we have built up those supplies of food. It has often been said of other countries that they bought guns before butter. Guns are obvious subjects of re-armament, and butter is not so obvious; but for an island which depends largely for its food upon supplies brought by sea, butter is almost of more importance than guns. It is simply to get an assurance from the Minister about this that we are asking these questions today.
In view of the importance of the matter, I am extremely surprised that the Minister of Food is not here. I should have thought that on a matter of this importance the Minister himself would have come to the House and assured us that the Government are taking the necessary vital steps. One of the things that is worrying us is the obvious temptation which the Government have had during the last few months to dissipate their stocks. My hon. Friends have given instances, and I believe we are right in thinking that there has been a considerable run-down in our food stores. We are anxious about the corned beef situation. We believe that our stocks in this food have been run down. We have seen food stores all over the country gradually turned over to other purposes. In this Vote the Government ask for a sum in order to create food storage accommodation. It seems a very small amount. I believe that we are not allowed to discuss its size in that context, but I want an assurance from the Minister that he is satisfied that, in our present situation, food storage and the stockpiling of food are keeping pace with the rest of our rearmament programme.
The first thing that strikes one when looking at these Supplementary Estimates is that there is no original Estimate at all. I say at once that that is an indictment of the Government. We have been in a very dangerous and difficult international situation for a very long time, and that situation has not deteriorated very much during the last few months. Yet there has been no thought of stockpiling before this year, and now we have only this small sum of £3 million suggested. Any hon. Member can very quickly work out that this paltry sum is equivalent to 1s. 4d. per head of the population of this country, which means that, on average, we are going to store one tin of, say, Heinz beans per person.
Fifty million into £3 million is, approximately, 6 per cent., and 6 per cent. of £1 is, approximately, 1s. 4d. I think that if the hon. Gentleman takes out paper and pencil he will find that I am, in fact, right in saying that the amount is equivalent to one tin of Heinz beans. A tin of beans would sustain the Minister of Food for, perhaps, six hours, and the Prime Minister for, perhaps eight hours, but, in any case, it is a very small amount per head to stockpile as a precaution in case war comes along.
It is of the utmost importance that we should use this money in the best way, and, in spite of what was said by the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Dye) that to do so might jeopardise the Government's chances of making good bargains, I am going to make some suggestions, although I do not think that they will very seriously embarrass the Minister. As my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) said, it is very important that we should use this money to store the foods most difficult to obtain in time of war, namely, those which have to come from the farthest distance. I think that probably the most important commodity we could stockpile would be animal feedingstuffs of a high protein content.
I believe that to be far more important than the laying in of stores for human consumption because such feedingstuffs can be converted into far greater quantities of food than we could possibly store in warehouses or anywhere else. In the past, the Government have imported vast amounts of coarse grain from Russia, the Argentine, and elsewhere. Had they concentrated on spending even very valuable dollars on feedingstuffs of a high protein content, they would have been very much wiser, because if we are to produce more food in this country in an emergency we must have balanced feedingstuffs.
There is no doubt that if war comes, our farmers will, as before, produce very much more grain than they do at other times, and the fact that there was high protein feedingstuffs stored ready to mix with their home-grown coarse grains would give them an enormous incentive to concentrate on producing more roots, barley and oats. Having this protein for mixing purposes is like putting butter on bread and turning it into a drawing-room meal instead of having a prison diet of dry bread, or, again, like putting soda into whisky, when the soda becomes at once far more valuable. In farming terms, it means that we are getting a production ration instead of a mere maintenance ration.
Up to the present the feedingstuffs which have been imported have, on average, contained only 15 per cent. of protein. Many of us know that it requires at least 22 per cent. of protein in order to have a balanced feedingstuff for the production of milk. Oil cakes contain up to 40 per cent. of protein, but, here again, I know that valuable dollars would have to be used to buy them. My contention is that if we have these high protein feedingstuffs, we shall have the best possible items for storing in the event of war. They are obviously much easier to store than many other things because they are concentrated, and, as I have already said, they would give farmers an incentive to produce other coarse grains to go with them and give them a balanced ration.
There is one further suggestion I wish to make about the storing of food. If only the Government would encourage the housewives to lay in a store of food, as, indeed, they were encouraged to do after Dunkirk, they would find space in their larders, their cellars, or even their bottom drawers in which to put these tinned foods. This £3 million is only equivalent, as I have pointed out, to one tin of beans per person, but I think the Government would find that many housewives would be able to store tinned foods far in excess of that value, that such storing would be far more successful than what the Government are themselves trying to do, and that it would not cost the Government anything at all. It would also give people confidence to know that they had, say, a fortnight's supply of food in the house, and food stored in this way would be well distributed throughout the whole country instead of being vulnerable in the event of war to enemy attack as it would be, in all probability, if stored in warehouses.
I was very interested to hear one of my hon. Friends also mention the storing of food in houses. I suggest to the Government that they should come out quickly with a policy for doing this, because there are many houses in the country with empty rooms which cannot be used for living purposes, but which are perfectly waterproof and which could hold an amount of tinned foods. For instance, if the Government were to say that they would pay up to £2 or £3 per 1,000 cubic feet, or whatever a good market price would be, for such accommodation, I believe they would get many offers from people in large country houses and elsewhere who have such space available, space which cannot be used for other purposes. But they must let the people know what they want. They should advertise the fact that they require such space for storage purposes, when I am sure they would get the necessary accommodation, and would find it cheaper than building large warehouses at very heavy cost.
I wish to refer to one point, and to one point only. It is the question which has been raised by some hon. Members regarding storage. In referring to stockpiling yesterday, the Minister of Supply said that the Government were already using aerodrome buildings and temporary buildings of wooden construction for this purpose. As has been said, it is extremely important that the Ministry of Food should do whatever stockpiling it can in the existing uncertain and difficult situation but, as the Minister knows, there is a certain amount of storing going on which has not always been done under the best conditions, or with the best results.
I have already raised with his Department a problem in my own constituency where wooden buildings were being used for the storage of food and were literally alive with rats. This is an extremely serious thing for the taxpayer and the Parliamentary Secretary's Department because of the resultant loss. But it is also extremely important to the surrounding farmers who find that they have a plague of rats which have bred in the first place in these wooden buildings on aerodromes, which are completely unfitted for the storage of food. I understand that the Ministry of Food have tried to deal with this by using various methods of pest destruction which, on the whole, I think have been unsatisfactory. The Parliamentary Secretary shakes his head, but I have given him instances in which when inspectors of this Department have visited the buildings. They come down once every six months and give the place a whiff of gas or something of that sort and then think they have solved the problem, but that is not so.
What are the Government doing about this problem? It is no good asking for £3 million for the stockpiling or storage of food if proper precautions are not taken to safeguard the food when, because of existing circumstances, use has to be made of ordinary temporary buildings on aerodromes. I understand that the practice during the war was to get people who really knew something about it to do this work. There was an institution called, I believe, Pest Control, which knew how to do it. What is it costing the Ministry to try to deal with the problem as compared with the cost during the war when it was handled by that very efficient organisation, Pest Control? There is a good deal of feeling among farmers and people in the countryside that these storage arrangements are merely producing a plague of rats.
Certainly; I was referring to an aerodrome at Leiston, and there is also one near Halesworth, both in my constituency. I visited both aerodromes, and one had only to look through the keyholes of these buildings to see them alive with rats. The rats were running about all over the place, eating grain which I believe was imported from Russia and brought up by road transport from Ipswich and dumped in these wooden buildings. These arrangements are not satisfactory. If we are to spend this money on very necessary de-centralisation of the stockpiling of food, I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to give an assurance that there are proper and efficient arrangements to keep down vermin and to prevent stocks that civilians will want to eat from being consumed by rats.
I support what the Member for Eye (Mr. Granville) has said by asking the Parliamentary Secretary to look through the columns of the Dundee Press of last year, in which he will see pictures of a store in Dundee where all the cats of Dundee seemed to congregate to catch the mice eating the hon. Gentleman's grain.
On page 69 of the Supplementary Estimate there is a footnote to Sub-head F—"Contribution to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations" which says:
Additional provision required to enable the full contribution for 1951 to be paid before 31st March, 1951.
That is a quite reasonable thing to expect, but are we asked to do this to keep this organisation solvent because other nations are not keeping up their contributions?
I notice that there was no sum allowed in the original Estimate in respect of sub-head M—"Purchase and Storage, etc., of Emergency Reserves." There- fore, it is a new service. My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) has done a service in starting this debate today to find out what line the Government are following here. The service is new only to the extent of existing circumstances; but I remember that in 1938 Mr. French discharged a similar function in the Board of Trade before the Ministry of Food or the Ministry of Supply were set up. He did all this work privately through the existing trade and established a stockpile before anybody knew about it. Now the Government are coming forward with this estimate and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton said, they have "missed the bus" again by waiting too long.
The hon. Member for Norfolk, Southwest (Mr. Dye), alluded to something which I also wish to mention. He said that, as far as the storage of materials in this country is concerned, the best place to store them is on the farm. I should like to give a few figures about the stocks of livestock on the farms. In 1939 there were 8,872,000 cattle in this country. Today there are 10,500.000, but from them we are getting a considerably smaller proportion of meat. These figures come from "The Monthly Digest of Statistics" which the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West, can obtain in the Library. The average amount of meat of all kinds going into the trade in 1938—I admit it was of all kinds—was 21,000 tons weekly. In 1950 the average for the whole year was only 16,675 tons, according to my mathematics.
That is just part of the explanation to which I was coming; it is not the whole explanation. There are more cattle but there is less beef. Admittedly there are fewer sheep and 100,000 fewer breeding sows, and about one million fewer pigs. It seems to me there are two ways of stockpiling on the farm. Our policy should be directed to increasing the amount of meat as opposed to livestock coming into the market, which can either be canned and used for the ration—and I hope to goodness the ration will be bigger than it is now—or stored in cold storage.
There are two ways of doing it. One is to encourage still more cattle and to secure an increase of at least six million in the sheep population, which is six million fewer than it was in 1949, and an increase of at least one million in the pig population. We would thus get not only more cattle but more sheep and pigs coming forward weekly to be used fresh as carcase meat, canned for stockpiling or put in cold store to keep the ration level.
The other way is to increase the amount of feedingstuffs. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge (Mr. G. Williams) has said, an increase in the importation and storage of feedingstuffs would do both things. It would increase the number of pigs and cattle; and, thanks to the calf subsidy and similar schemes, there are 400,000 more calves in this country than there were in 1939. If we are to maintain that big stock so that we have stock on the hoof, we must continually encourage the growing of calves instead of killing them off. That is one way—to increase the stock of meat on the hoof and organise the industry in such a way that we encourage the production of livestock and get an increasing flow of meat coming to the market so that it can be dealt with as the Government require.
There is another way in which we can stockpile, and that is by the storage of grain. Before the last war, the general cry was "Keep your grain stocks on the farm." People do not do that now. They have so many combine harvesters; the combine harvesters get the grain, which is then sent to the millers, the distillers and the brewers. It is taken off the farm straight away. I do not want to turn the clock back. I realise it is very convenient for farmers and others to get rid of their grain quickly, and in some cases it is profitable to do so: but if we are considering an emergency, we ought by price adjustments to encourage the keeping of grain on the farms.
Not sufficiently. It is obviously not sufficient, because there are so many more combine harvesters than there were, and so, many more people are using them. I, personally, have not used a combine and I hope I shall never do so.
I may be, but even if I am, perhaps I am serving my country better than some of the more modern farmers. If the Government want to stockpile home-grown grain, they should encourage the keeping of grain on the farm instead of overtaxing the millers', brewers' and distillers' storage places.
There is just one other point on this question of storage, and I am not quite sure how far I shall be allowed to go with it. In order to cultivate the grain, it is necessary to have machinery; and it is no good having machinery unless we can stockpile spares.
I should like to address my remarks to the question of storing imported wheat. The main principles of storing are, first of all, to store for stockpiling purposes the commodity which is most essential, and I am sure the Parliamentary Secretary will agree that the basic food of all is bread. For that we must have wheat. We import something like two-thirds of our supply of wheat and flour, and therefore if we are to ensure that we have our daily bread in war-time we must stockpile wheat.
The second qualification for stockpiling is that the commodity concerned can conveniently be stored and easily moved in and out of the store. It is desirable to store many of the other things of which we have heard, but they may not necessarily be convenient or suitable for storage. Wheat, however, can be kept in storage for one or two years if it is in a good condition, and by modern machinery and bulk handling methods it can conveniently and easily be moved through the store.
I am interested to know whether the Minister of Food has begun to think of the stockpiling of wheat in relation to Item M in these Estimates. This is a very modest provision of £3 million. Does that include drawing up plans for this purpose? I should be interested to hear his reply. I appreciate that this cannot be done in one day, but I should like to know if he has begun to think about it, and if so on what lines he is thinking. I have seen large grain stores in America and in Canada, and in that country they can carry pretty well a whole wheat crop. For Canada this is a storage capacity of about 12 million tons.
To provide for, say, 3 million tons of imported wheat would not be beyond the bounds of physical possibility. Three million tons is a reasonable sort of figure to consider for the purpose of stockpiling, and if the Minister were to provide for such an amount he would be stockpiling 3 million of the 3¾ million tons of wheat and flour which we import annually. Therefore, he would be covering the best part of a year's supply of imported wheat and flour, and he would ensure that in the event of war we should be able to manage without importing wheat for a period of six to nine months. I imagine that if we could be saved moving something like 300 or 400 ships in the first six or nine months of the war, it would be a strategic advantage of tremendous value to us.
It is to that end that I am addressing my remarks. The cost of building the storage would not be unduly high. It is difficult to say exactly what it would cost, but I imagine that the cost per ton to build silos and the necessary conveying machinery and so on would be certainly not more than £4 or £5 a ton, and the total cost of building the storage would be at the most something in the nature of £15 million.
Hon. Members opposite have said that it is dangerous to discuss this subject of stockpiling commodities at the moment. We normally derive our wheat from our friends in Canada, but it might be possible in an emergency to get it from the United States, and I should have thought it was not beyond the bounds of possibility to have a loan of wheat. In Canada and America they have wheat in store for most of the year. As we are all together in the Atlantic Pact, we have a common aim in the strategic sphere. It seems to me that if we were to say that it was not possible financially for us to buy this wheat now they might be willing to put their wheat in our stores. The mutual advantage which we should all have in war-time is obvious.
The stores would necessarily have to be at port side, and I realise there is a strategic danger in that they would be vulnerable to attack, but obviously they would be infinitely less vulnerable than the hundreds of ships in which we would have to bring the wheat here if war started. It is true that we might lose one or two storage places, but the main bulk of the stores would be reasonably safe. With the kind of silos which are normally used for large-scale storage and the kind of bulk conveying gear which is used in those stores, it would present no problem to pass fresh supplies from the ships to the silos and the old supplies out into the grain trucks which would carry them to the flour mills.
It seems to me that a conception of that kind is sound and practical and that it should be taken into account when we are considering what stockpiling we should do in order to protect ourselves against the event of war. I shall be grateful if the Parliamentary Secretary will give us some indication of whether his Ministry have been thinking along these lines, whether they feel that the daily bread of the country is sufficiently important for its supply to be secured and whether they feel that the strategic advantage which would be derived from such a provision is sufficient to make the project worth while.
I intervene because I think there might be some misapprehension in the country as a result of what has been said by one or two hon. Members opposite about stockpiling. The hon. Member for Tonbridge (Mr. G. Williams) referred to the sum of £3 million, which is quoted in the Estimates, as a paltry sum, and it might be thought from what he said that that is all the Government are doing in this matter. In the same way, the hon. and gallant Member for Angus, South (Captain Duncan) suggested that the Government had started much too late in dealing with this question and that they should have started very much earlier.
After what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Dye), I think all hon. Members will agree that the best way to carry out stockpiling is to increase the normal agricultural production of the country, and of course this Government started on such a policy as soon as they came into office. If, unhappily, we were to be engaged in a war—and all hon. Members hope we shall not—we should begin that war with very much bigger stockpiles of food on our own farms than those we had in 1939 when we entered a war which had been foreseen for many years.
In order to comfort hon. Members opposite, and possibly others in the country who might be misled by what has been said today, perhaps I may give some of the figures of the increased stockpiles of food which exist in this country by comparison with 1939 or, rather, by comparison with the time when we began the agricultural expansion programme. Between June, 1947, and June, 1950, the number of cattle in this country increased by over a million. [HON. MEMBERS: "What about 1939?"] I will give the figures by comparison with 1939 in a moment, but these are the figures for the last three years—and it was one of the complaints of hon. Members opposite that we had not started sufficiently early on a programme of increasing the stockpiles of food in this country.
Here are some of the stockpiles which exist in the country by comparison with 1947. The number of cattle has increased by over a million, sheep by 3¾ million, pigs by over 1,346,000, poultry by 26 million. If hon. Members like to talk in terms of meat, then since the expansion programme was started there has been an increase in the production of beef and veal by 63,000 tons, mutton and lamb by 12,500 tons, pig meat by 173,000 tons. If hon. Members wish to talk about grain crops and wheat, to which the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Nugent) referred, then I would point out that the acreage under wheat, barley, oats, mixed corn and rye is about 250,000 acres more than in 1947 and three million acres more than in 1938. In addition, the yields are very much greater; over 1½million more tons of grain were produced last harvest than in 1947. If hon. Members opposite want the direct comparison with 1939, I will give the figures for the general agricultural production of the country. The volume of net agricultural output is now over 140 per cent. of pre-war, compared with the target of a still higher figure of 150 per cent. in 1952–53.
Thus we have very much better stockpiles in the country than ever we had in 1938, precisely because of the normal expansion of the agricultural industry which has taken place, and of course that is the best kind of stockpiling which can be done. It would be quite wrong, therefore, for anyone in the country, either as a result of listening to what has been said by hon. Members opposite or of reading a report of the debate, to imagine that we were in anything like as perilous a situation as far as food stocks are concerned as we were when we began to fight alone in the war against Nazi Germany in 1939.
It is quite true that in some commodities there were great difficulties immediately after the war. Everyone knows the reasons. We were at war for six years and at the end of the war great numbers of people all over the world were starving. This Government took a leading part in trying to feed the people who were starving and, as a result, we were not able to embark on our full agricultural expansion policy as early as we should have wished. But if any hon. Member thinks it was wrong on the part of the Government to play their full part in helping to feed the people of Germany and India who were starving, then I suggest he should think again.
Those are the facts and that is why there is a discrepancy between the figures when we compare 1945 with 1947. The fairest figures to take are those which I have taken—what has been achieved in the expansion of British agriculture since 1947 when we started on the programme. If hon. Members opposite prefer a comparison between now and 1939, bearing in mind that 1939 was a year after a series of right hon. Gentlemen opposite, who still, sit on that Front Bench, had been Ministers of Agriculture, I have given it. It might also be remembered that every year those right hon. Gentlemen were Ministers of Agriculture some 10,000 workers from the British countryside packed up their work and left the land.
All I am asking the hon. Gentleman, quite calmly, is to give either one of two things—the comparison between 1939 and 1945 or the increase from 1945 to the present time. I should like to know the increase; I should like the information.
I shall be very happy to give the hon. and gallant Gentleman the figures. I am afraid that I have not brought with me all the agricultural statistics for the last ten years and it would take a considerable time to explain to the hon. and gallant Gentleman that one of the things which happened during the war was that for obvious reasons we had to kill off a lot of cattle in the country, and that would have an effect on the figures. If he wants the figures I shall be very happy to supply them to him in detail and I shall look forward to the next speech he makes in his constituency to see whether he reads out those statistics to his constituents.
This is an important matter because it would be wrong if a scare were created throughout the country about stockpiling. It would be wrong if statements made by hon. Members opposite went out to the country to suggest that we are spending only £3 million on piling up stocks of food when—and nobody opposite can deny it—the fact is that today our stocks of food in the country would be very much better if we were to be engaged in a war than they were in 1939.
Perhaps I may refer briefly to a subject raised by the first two or three speakers on the benches opposite—sugar. They quoted some figures which had been given at an annual meeting a week or so ago by Lord Lyle on the subject of sugar stockpiling and the purchase of sugar. I think statements made by Lord Lyle on this subject should be regarded by the Government and anybody else with the gravest suspicion because the point in all the arguments which Lord Lyle was advancing on the subject was that he wished to see the purchase of sugar for this country restored to the private traders, and the figures which he gave were all purporting to support that argument.
He did not use that occasion to inform his shareholders that all the people who produce the sugar for Lord Lyle and his friends and his companies to refine are 100 per cent. in favour of maintaining these bulk purchase, long-term contract arrangements. If Lord Lyle had taken a trip across the Atlantic to the West Indies and made in Jamaica or the West Indies generally the speech he made at the annual board meeting, he would have been howled down.
The facts are that in the past four or five years there has been a series of delegations coming to this country from the West Indies, and all asking for the maintenance of this bulk purchasing system, and, indeed, asking for an extension of the period of contract which is provided under these agreements. I certainly myself hope that the Ministry of Food will never surrender to those people on that side of the House—or, may be, to some of the elements inside the Ministry of Food itself—who may advocate an abandonment of this system. Just as it is essential to build up our stocks of food in this country, chiefly by the normal process of general agricultural production, so, I think, we can assist ourselves, in peace as in war, by the method of guaranteeing to our chief sugar producers in the West Indies the longest possible contract that we can.
Indeed, in the war itself it was found how essential it was to establish this system, because we could not have carried on our trade relations with the people in the West Indies properly at all if we had not established this system during the war. There is not one representative of the sugar producers anywhere in the West Indies who subscribes to the view put forward by Lord Lyle, or by some hon. Gentlemen on the opposite side of the House, that we should abandon this system—a system which, in fact, has given new hope to the people in the West Indies, and which, so far from being abandoned, should be extended to the fullest possible extent in the future.
The hon. Member for Devonport (Mr. Foot) has talked a great deal about sugar in the West Indies. I do not know very much about that part of the world, but I have always understood that one of the main leaders of the native population, Mr. Bustamente, was very much opposed to State trading in sugar.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not like to say anything that would embarrass Mr. Bustamente. All the political leaders in the West Indies are in favour of the maintenance of this system. It would be a misrepresentation, I am sure, of Mr. Bustamente's views to say that he is opposed to it in any sense at all.
I was saying—[Interruption.]It is impossible for me to answer the hon. Member for Devonport, while the inmates of his own kennel make so much noise. I think I had better proceed with one or two other remarks. I was only prefacing what I was going to say—[Interruption]It is of no use trying to reply to the point of the hon. Gentleman. However, I do happen to know a little more about the agricultural position.
I should very much like to do that if I could calm those hon. Gentlemen on the other side of the House. I was going on to take up some other points which the hon. Member for Devonport made with regard to agricultural production. I agree wholeheartedly in principle that stockpiling can be done very effectively by increasing stocks on the farms, but, of course, he is entirely wrong in his history of the Government's efforts in stockpiling on the farms. In fact, agricultural production fell in this country in 1945 and in 1946, and the reason why the panic effort was made by the Government in 1946 and 1947 had nothing whatever to do with stockpiling: it was entirely because this country faced starvation owing to lack of ability on the part of the Government.
Nonsense. Quite untrue. In order to complete the picture the hon. Gentleman is attempting to paint—some-what distortedly—will he tell us what steps his right hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. R. S. Hudson) took in the days of the Caretaker Government, including the withdrawal of wartime powers, and all the rest, which led to a decline in production in 1945?
There was undoubtedly a change of emphasis in the industry. I agree about that. I think the hon. Gentleman agrees. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Oh, yes, that is a fact, and, indeed, the leaders of hon. Gentlemen opposite were responsible for it.
I may be wrong about my dates, but if I follow the hon. Gentleman rightly, his argument is that in February, 1945, certain things were done which carried with them—I thought he was going to say—rather evil consequences; and my recollection is that the Labour Government did not come in until later in that year.
That was not a useful intervention. The leaders of the hon. Member's party were responsible for the decision taken in February, 1945. That is a fact. If I may proceed with the tenor of my argument—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Well, it is not my fault that I have not been able to do so. The real facts of the matter are—and the hon. Member for Devonport made a statement with which I agree—that since 1947 there has been an increase of stock on the farms. But the reasons he gave forced my comment, because he knows that my interpretation is correct.
I want to come back to this figure of £3 million, because it does strike me that the House is entitled to an explanation of why it has been selected. I do hope that the Parliamentary Secretary is going to give us some reassurance on the matter, because obviously by putting forward a figure like this there is inevitably created an impression in the mind of the country that that is all that is to be done. Obviously, a great deal more than that has got to be done. The perturbation is increased by the fact that during the whole of 1950 in many important commodities we were living on our stocks. That means that those stocks have got to be replaced. Therefore, I ask categorically this question, Is it really true that they only got the idea that we had to pile stocks in January this year? I give the Government a month in which to produce the necessary Supplementary Estimates to present to the House. It seems to me that the Government only started to think about this in January, 1951.
I wish to discuss where the Government intend to store the piles of food which are to be stocked. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food and I know something about the storage capacity of the country. He and I sat on the Estimates Committee which went into this matter; not in great detail, but certainly with all the main knowledge which one ought to have on the matter. I understand that today the available storage space in the country is not much more than in 1939. Further, he will remember that in the report of the Estimates Committee, we stated that there were then 63 aerodromes and, I think, 48 modern cold stores available. A considerable amount of that accommodation obviously will not be available today and I consider it would be helpful to know just how many of those aerodromes would become available when our stockpiling reaches a size which will really effect an improvement in our position.
I want to know how we are to stockpile. First we have to start to re-build the stocks which we ran down in 1950. We have to re-build our meat stocks even to give us an adequate ration. We have to replace at least one-third of our wheat stocks and at least one quarter of our tea stocks. Those are commodities in which the discrepancy is greatest. I hope that the Minister and his colleagues are addressing themselves to the building up of those particular stocks. It will be extremely difficult to do that today. World prices are running heavily against us and the longer we wait the worse that position will become.
As I see the position, either we have to pay these fantastic world prices or else we shall not stockpile at all. As I understand it, the stockpiling contemplated under this Vote amounts to one and one-third of a week's supply of wheat for the country; and for the whole of the available money we are voting we could obtain seven weeks' supply of dried eggs. Those are two very valuable commodities in cases of emergency but obviously this is of extremely little importance compared with the problem which concerns us all.
We shall have great difficulty in bringing into this country the necessary piles of stocks. The point I am endeavouring to make is emphasised by this constant succession of disputes and quarrels with our suppliers. I have here a list of disputes which are either in progress at the moment or, since my information was gleaned, have been settled—but I believe they are all in progress at the moment. There is a dispute with. Holland over eggs and bacon; with Australia over butter; with New Zealand over butter and mutton; with Canada over bacon and cheese; with Denmark over butter and perhaps bacon—I am not quite sure about that—and with the Argentine over meat. That is a list of quarrels and disputes we are having with our suppliers which obviously is affecting all the channels of supply and preventing these stocks coming forward in proper and adequate quantities into this country.
I regard with some degree of perturbation the problem of how we are to get stockpiles into this country at all. I want to know what we are going to pile—I do not know whether that is the right expression or the right way to put it. We hear a certain amount about wheat and I would reinforce the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Nugent) that the real primary commodity is wheat. We ought to stock large quantities. Not only would we get bread but, more important still, supplies of feedingstuffs for cattle. There is the question of coarse grains and it is very alarming to me, as one who is mainly interested in the agricultural industry, to see that our stocks in this particular line are run down.
In common with other hon. Members I would emphasise the importance of stockpiling on the farm. If more food stocks were obtained and brought into this country, if the rations to the farmers were increased, that would result in stockpiling in three separate ways. First by increasing the amount of feedingstuffs in the internal distribution system, which in itself would be a considerable amount of tonnage; second, there would be more stored on the farms as opposed to being inside the animals; third, which I do not think has been mentioned, if we are able to purchase a considerable quantity of feedingstuffs the head of stock on the farm can be increased. If a cut in feedingstuffs becomes necessary and it is not possible to buy because of an emergency, a considerable quantity of livestock of all sorts would have to be killed, but this would carry us over the difficult and dangerous interregnum between peace and war. Enough has been said to show how deeply concerned we are with the efforts of the Government to get on with this job, and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will have something to say to allay our obvious anxiety.
I would address myself to a relatively minor item in these Supplementary Estimates, namely, our contribution to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation and the reason why we ought to subscribe greatly to any sort of organisation which will prevent, or help to prevent, the abuse of the world supply of food which did exist before the war.
I remember during a recent debate on the Groundnut Scheme in which the right hon. and gallant Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crook shank) became rather exuberant, trying to catch your eye, Sir, on many occasions, and failing. I suppose I am—and I say this with humility—one of the few people, if indeed there are any others in this House, who have worked in East Africa. I say "worked" as opposed to "visited" East Africa. I well remember my experience, or rather the very sad experience of the people who ran the estates in Tanganyika in the early 'thirties.
I well remember the time when in Tanga, Zanzibar and Dar-es-Salaam estates were stocked high with the very commodities that this country did not seem to have the opportunity of importing. I well remember going into "godowns" in Dar-es-Salaam and seeing sisal stocked high at a time when the sisal producers not only could not get an economic price for their sisal, but could not even get anybody to buy it; and the same thing applied to tea, coffee and sugar. If I might digress for a moment I remember going—did the hon. Member for Carlton (Mr. Pickthorn) wish to say something?
We are used to the sub-moronic interventions of the hon. Member. His well known charm entitles him to make them but he must not overdo it. I am addressing myself to subhead F of the Vote.
I remember the time when I visited a tea estate in Tanganyika. As I went through the main gateway, I saw a European working with a large number of Africans. I thought "he is getting on with the job." I motored along to the bungalow and there saw another European. It was about 11 o'clock in the morning, and he was sitting in a long chair with a long drink beside him and having an easy time. We got talking in a friendly way, and I said, "Things are not so good in the world; don't you think you might be doing a job with your colleague?" He said, "You don't think that I pay that man do you? This month I employ him and next month he employs me. We don't pay each other because we cannot afford to." That was a situation before the war which was characteristic of the world. It had nothing to do with the Tory Party. If there is any possibility of trying to organise the distribution of surplus commodities in the world, I think that we should support it.
Earlier this afternoon I had no intention of inter- vening in the debate, but the speech of the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Nugent) touched on a point which is so important that I should like to follow it up. I must, however, first refer to the speech of the hon. Member for Devon-port (Mr. Foot). Several things that he said have already been dealt with, but one or two have not. He said that during the war the system of bulk purchase from the West Indies was very valuable to us, and he implied that it was the only possible policy in time of peace. He is profoundly wrong. The system of bulk purchase was necessary during the war solely because of war conditions and the difficulty of working the convoy system without it. It is silly to argue that what is necessary in war is necessarily right in peace. If hon. Members opposite who take that view thought the matter out, they would see that none of the conditions are equal, and that the convoy problem was one of the best reasons for bulk purchase.
I am not suggesting that because we did it in war we should do it in peace. I think that it was valuable to us in war. As the hon. Member seeks to demolish my argument, can he tell me why the tea producers and workers in the West Indies are strongly in favour of maintaining this system?
I will not carry on with that argument because I do not think that would be in order. I will read the OFFICIAL REPORT tomorrow morning and find out exactly the points which the hon. Gentleman made. I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me that it is a misleading statement. That is the kind of thing that is said on every platform in the country during the weekends, and it makes one really sick, because it is just nonsense.
The second thing which I have to say about the speech of the hon. Member for Devonport is that I felt a certain sympathy with him in his struggling with his ancestral difficulties about free trade. He was talking about things that had happened since 1945 compared with pre-war. It was pointed out by an hon. Member on this side that what has happened since 1945 has been a continuation of what was started by the right hon. Member for Southport (Mr. R. S. Hudson). A lot of things have changed since 1939, including the views of the Labour Party, who before 1939 opposed for years any attempt to protect the position of the British farmer.
I am not a free trader. I left the Liberal Party because I did not believe in free trade, amongst other things. When I left the Liberal Party, 1 at least did not do what the hon. Gentleman has done, and that is try to hang on to the name.
May I say this, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, because I think it is relevant and of interest: Hon. Members opposite must realise that I have not in any way deserted the principles of the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party itself is now well away from free trade and precisely in the same position as I am on the subject.
The hon. Gentleman made the statement—I do not know on what authority—that the Labour Party before the war had no policy for protecting the British farmer. Is he not aware that the present policy of this Government and the policy of the Coalition Government in regard to the agriculture of this country was framed by the Labour Party many years before the war.
I apologise if I have gone astray, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, but I think there was some justification for it.
On the question of saving shipping by the emergency storing of food, the hon. Member for Guildford made the case clear, and I hope that we shall be given an undertaking as to what are the long-term views of the Government. I realise that in the short term there are no difficulties about it with the existing sources of supply. I think that there is a real possibility of achieving something by the general suggestion made that the Canadian Government and other Governments on the other side of the Atlantic might be prepared to store on this side of the Atlantic. I would remind the House that on the outbreak of war in 1939, for a variety of reasons it was necessary to divert shipping at short notice to the St. Lawrence to bring in grain, because it was feared that we were going to run too low. That diversion caused desperate trouble at the time when the convoy system was not operating completely, and heavy losses of tonnage resulted. That is a frightfully important point.
The main thing is that in all such matters, from the shipping point of view, the Minister of Food or the Parliamentary Secretary or the Department should really be in touch with the Minister of Defence and the Minister of Transport to ensure that there is co-ordination in the effort that is now being made—I will not comment whether too soon or too late—to build up reserve stocks. Is that being done by each Department regardless of other Departments? We have evidence of that kind of thing happening in the last six months. I have only to mention coal. There action was being taken by one Department without any reference to the other Departments. In view of that, it is quite impossible to have confidence in the present administration and to believe that they are doing a thing even like this sensibly and wisely.
In the last Parliament, I raised the question of the Minister of Transport being a permanent member of the Committee of Defence that was being set up, because I visualised then that this kind of situation might arise in the future. The Government would not agree to that. The Minister of Transport is not a permanent member of the Committee of Defence, and we have not the slightest idea who is really responsible for seeing that there is a co-ordinated defence policy on reserve stocks. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us whether his Department is undertaking this on its own, with only casual consultation with other Departments; or whether the matter is to be carefully worked out as a deliberate policy for which the Minister of Defence must ultimately be responsible?
That is why I have to raise this matter in this debate, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. If one tries to do it in a defence debate, one has not a hope of getting an answer, because it involves a Department like the Ministry of Food. I hope that we can really get to the bottom of this matter. It will be very valuable if we can be satisfied that this is part of a co-ordinated effort which is being handled carefully by one Minister, but it must also be a co-ordinated effort and part of a deliberate policy and not depend on chance efforts according to the enthusiasm of individual Ministers.
I have been encouraged to speak in this debate because of what has been said by the hon. Member for Renfrew, West (Mr. Maclay) and by other Members opposite. I think that a wrong impression is being created on the question of storage. Members have been speaking of the total amount of stockpiling, which to my mind is quite wrong, as this is only a Supplementary Estimate.
If the hon. Member refers to the original Estimate, he will see that the amount for this purpose is nil.This Supplementary Estimate, which covers £3 million, amounts therefore to a new Vote.
I think it will be agreed that £3 million does not represent the total amount of stockpiling to be undertaken. For instance, it can only provide a small amount of our meat supplies.
As I was saying, I am somewhat concerned about the statements which have been made on the question of storage, particularly by the hon. Member for Renfrew. West, who, like myself, has an interest in shipping, although from a different angle. The impression has been given that we have an unlimited amount of storage capacity. It will be remembered that at the time when some extraordinary transactions were going on in the 'grain trade, ships had to be used for storage purposes.
The hon. Member seemed to suggest that we have unlimited storage space. Complaints are also made about the condition of commodities in store. Sugar is certainly not a very satisfactory commodity to store on the dockside in Liverpool and London, although I appreciate that rat infestation at aerodromes and places of that kind is something of a problem. I hope that we shall be told what storage space is available in the country for the storage of grains. The hon. Member for Guildford seemed to suggest that there was unlimited capacity.
I am sorry that I missed the opening remarks of the hon. Member. I did say that storage space would have to be built, and I explained at some length how it should be built and what the cost would be. I attempted to show that it Would be of good value to the country to provide such storage space.
It should be remembered that probably the most costly building, in steel and cement, is the building of a silo. During the last 30 years I have seen two of the most modern built in Liverpool. We could not go in for this sort of building without interfering with our capital investment programme. It would mean knocking off at least 100,000 houses out of the 300,000 houses we require.
The fact of the matter is that we now have less cold storage than we had before the war. I think I am right in saying that in Liverpool the percentage of storage available is probably between 10 and 25 per cent. less than it was before the war. I know of storage capacity that was knocked out during the war which has not been replaced, and could only be replaced at the expense of the housing programme. The impression should not go out that things are brighter than they are. Suggestions have been made that we should use some of the old country houses for storing these commodities we are stockpiling. That will only mean that we shall be getting more complaints about the condition of the goods.
The hon. Member obviously has a great deal of knowledge about storage. Has he considered the vast range of goods that can be stored under water, as is done successfully in many countries, such as in France and Switzerland? Underwater storage would save a great deal of space in warehouses.
I think the hon. Member will agree that the sort of commodities we are discussing today do not lend themselves to that kind of storage. If we put them under the Mersey they will not be much good when divers bring them to the surface. I shall listen with interest to anything else that is said on this subject of storage. There is no need for me to speak of all the difficulties in providing more storage space. This is a matter that we have to approach from the commonsense point of view. We must look at it from the point of view of the total programme that is confronting us, and not merely from the point of view of stockpiling.
I wish to confine my remarks to Item E, and that is in regard to the £4¼ million for the British Sugar Corporation. Both during the war and since, we have been able to produce from our own soil a sugar ration of 8 oz. per head for the population. The sugar produced in this country has been mixed with the imported sugar, and it has been necessary therefore to give assistance to the Corporation, which has been in existence since the industry commenced.
There is a great deal of misunderstanding about what happens to the moneys that are handed over to the Corporation. The position is that between 1939 and 1948 an additional sum of £45 million above that which has been received by the Corporation from the Treasury has been paid to the Treasury. In view of the fact that we have had the largest crop ever grown in this country, the Treasury will be receiving a greater sum from the industry than it has ever had, when we come to the end of the season. If we take the average as £4½ million a year in excess payment, we find that the Treasury are still £250,000 in hand.
I should like to say a word about the future of the beet sugar industry. The question was asked in this House about building up a beet sugar factory in the south of England. Steps should be taken to expand further the factory space which we have in this country. I understand during the year 1917 the then Prime Minister, Mr. Lloyd George, was considerably more worried about the amount of sugar available for the people than about the amount of wheat. Greater attention should be given at this moment to building up our plants so that we can produce an even greater amount of sugar than we are doing today.
There is another side to the production of sugar in this country, and that is the by-products which we get which are very valuable feedingstuffs for our livestock. These things must be taken into consideration when one looks at a Vote of this sort. I hope that as a result of my few remarks I have been able to remove some of the misunderstandings in this country about the beet sugar industry, and the oft used statement that it is subsidised, and receives more from the Government than it gives. The position is exactly the reverse.
When the present Minister of Food took office, he inherited a full larder. One of the things which have been happening during the past year is that we have been living upon our stocks. I am not going to go over again the figures, which my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) gave to the House or which have been given in a recent issue of the "Economist," but every Member of the House will know that during the past year we have been living upon stocks. Even if that policy of living upon stocks was justified at the beginning and right to the middle of the last year when there were grounds for a belief that we were in for a time when the trend of world prices would be downward, there could be no justification for continuing the policy of living on stocks after the invasion of Korea.
Then two things at once became apparent, first of all that we were entering a period, probably a long period, in which the danger of war would be definitely nearer than it was before; and secondly, we were in for a period when the trend of world prices could no longer be downwards but must inevitably be upwards. If the Government from the time of the invasion of Korea had increased sufficiently the prices they were prepared to pay as their current contracts came up for price revision, then this country would have been saved the necessity for stockpiling at the present moment.
In matters of this kind we can learn valuable lessons from the past. All this has happened before so often in the history of this land, and if we look back to the past we can see what lessons are to be drawn. How did we tackle a very similar problem in the years before the recent world war? The Food (Defence Plans) Department was created in December, 1937, and although it suffered from inferiority of status and from a dual responsibility—on the one hand to the Board of Trade and on the other to the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence—it set to work quietly without ostentation and fuss, encouraging private traders to build up stocks and stockpiles in this country.
Let us see what happened in regard to our bread supplies. The policy of building up stocks, which started in the case of wheat in 1938, was so successful that during the war our stocks of flour and of wheat were built up to about 15 weeks supply. From 1946 to 1948 they averaged 10 weeks' supply. Today our stocks have been allowed to fall seriously below this level. With wheat at around four weeks' supply, and flour, taking imported and home-grown flour together, at about three and a half weeks' supply, we have a reserve of only half the supply which we found to be necessary in time of war. This is a very serious deficiency indeed and one which no currency problem and no shipping problem ought to prevent us from making good at the earliest possible moment.
One of the sources from which we should like to obtain wheat is the Dominion of Canada, and because of the poor harvest in certain parts of that Dominion we shall be under strong pressure to take our imports in the form of flour. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to tell the House that he will take our imports from Canada in the shape of whole grain, which is easier to handle, which is cheaper, and, above all, which ensures that we have a high proportion of milling offal for the use of our own livestock.
If we stockpiled wheat, as we did before the 1939–45 war, it was not necessary for us to stockpile meat. There was no stockpiling then because private enterprise traders carried large reserves of stocks both in the countries of origin and in this country. The pipelines leading from our main sources of supply all over the world were never empty. Chilled beef arrived from South America with the regularity of clockwork, and frozen meat came to this country in accordance with an accurately forecast demand.
In August, 1939, this was the position as far as I have been able to ascertain it. We had imported frozen meat in store in the United Kingdom to the extent of 57,500 tons. Phased arrivals of meat during the month of August came to 53,100 tons, during the month of September 51,800 tons, and during the month of October 41,100 tons. Since these months are the months of the heaviest home killings, there was no anxiety at all about the short-term future of our meat supplies. Moreover, there were very substantial reserves in the countries of origin, including a reserve of 50,000 tons of mutton in New Zealand, which happened to be in excess of the 1939 quota and which was available for us to ship at any time.
How much meat should we store in this country? The answer depends upon three factors. It must depend upon the level of meat consumption, upon the level of home killings, and thirdly, upon the international situation. With an eight-penny ration of carcase meat, our weekly consumption is about 16,000 tons. We cannot hope for any great increase in our home supplies until the month of June. As for the international situation, if it were not pretty grim we would not be talking about stockpiling food this evening. It would be prudent, taking all these factors into consideration, to store 150,000 tons of meat in these islands, with 100,000 tons as a minimum. At the present moment it is doubtful whether we hold one-fifth of that necessary minimum.
Now I pass from meat to a kindred commodity, bacon. I believe that the breakdown of our negotiations for the supply of bacon from Canada has a very serious defence implication. Under the Ottawa Agreements, Canada was given an assured outlet and an attractive price inducement to send us as much bacon as for the time she was able to do. In 1931, exports to the United Kingdom were only of the order of 98,000 cwts. In 1939, they had increased to 1,660,000 cwts., and when Europe was overrun by the boche,Canada stepped up her production and increased her exports to us, in our need, progressively from 3 million cwts. in 1940 to 6 million cwts. in 1944.
What is the position today? Last year, Denmark sent us more bacon than we produced ourselves, and we actually bought more bacon from Poland than we bought from Canada. I know that Canada is a hard currency country, but there is no doubt that Lease-Lend and Mutual Aid helped our imports of bacon from Canada from 1940 to 1945. Poland is behind the Iron Curtain. Denmark, how- ever much we want to trade with that country, is geographically vulnerable. I beg the Minister to see that we get going again with Canada, as a defence measure if for no other reason, and to see that our imports of bacon from there are started once again.
Let me talk for one minute about dehydration, which is immensely important when we are talking about the stockpiling of food. I am told by the experts, although I do not know it of my own knowledge, that 1,000 tons of cabbages take up 140,000 cubic feet in the raw state but that they take up only 3,000 cubic feet if they are dried and compressed. Dehydration is immensely important, and if we are to do what we ought to do in the way of storing and stockpiling food, we have to have tinplate. We recently had a debate about that, and I am not going to say more about it than that last year the preserved food industry in this country used 200,000 tons of tinplate to can 600,000 tons of food.
It is not easy to convert a reduction in the supplies of tinplate to the growers and canners into tons of fruit and vegetables which canners will be unable to can or to buy from the growers, because the ratio in respect of different fruits and vegetables is naturally variable. As a rough guide I should say that every ton of tinplate denied to the canners means that three tons of fruit and vegetables will go uncanned. On this basis we could have canned more than 300,000 tons of home-grown food with the tinplate which was exported for food packing to non-Commonwealth countries during last year, and the amount that we sent to Argentina alone in the past two years would have been sufficient for us to can not less than 150,000 tons of meat.
So it is with almost every commodity that one can think of. Faced with the necessity to build up stocks, we have had to sit by and watch what were formerly adequate reserves drawn upon without sufficient replacement. Can we retrieve the position? With wheat, yes, I think we can—at a price—although shipping is going to be very difficult indeed. There are some things that money cannot buy, and it seems very doubtful now whether we shall be able to secure enough carcase meat, enough bacon and ham, and enough butter and cheese to do more than maintain a reasonable ration scale.
I support what has just been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Angus, North, and Mearns (Mr. Thornton-Kemsley) about dehydrated vegetables, and the shortage of tinplate. It might be out of order, but it is important in stockpiling. The Minister of Agriculture was asked what he proposed to do to encourage the acreage of horticulture. The one thing to encourage production in horticulture is to make more tinplate available, so that when we get surplus cabbages, fruit, and what not they can be canned and put on the shelf, ready for the day when fresh supplies are not available. Unless something is done to protect horticulture and use the surplus on the year's production, that class of goods will decrease.
I want to take up the question of the stockpiling of food, not in silos at the ports nor in cold storage. I want to reinforce the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Angus, North, and Mearns, who called attention to the fact that the best place to stockpile food is on the farm. I want to call attention to the vulnerability of this country. If war comes, it will not be by the old-fashioned way of giving warning and withdrawing ambassadors. We may be faced with another Pearl Harbour, but before that Pearl Harbour our potential enemy, who is reputed to have a thousand long-range fast-moving submarines, will have submarines planted all over the world in the most likely spots on our lifelines. In other words, when the balloon goes up, those submarines will be in such a position that they can sweep our ships off the seas.
If that happens, what food reserves shall we have in this country? It would be interesting to know whether the Parliamentary Secretary can give us any idea of how long we can feed our people on the food that we have in the country at the present moment. I believe it would be rather startling if an accurate figure could be given. In three years we are to spend something like £4,700 million upon armaments and the training of soldiers. That is not the slightest good unless we have the food to feed the people, and I suggest that a little diversion of some of that vast sum of money towards the reclamation of our waste land would be of immense value. Not only would it be valuable for defence purposes in war-time but it would not be wasted as some or our armaments may be wasted if war does not come. We should reclaim that land whether we go to war or not. If we bring that land back into cultivation and produce more from it, it will be of lasting benefit to us.
To say that it is impossible is just nonsense. In many cases that land was producing hardy stock 80 years ago. Something like 11 million acres of land is designated as rough grazing in Britain today and it is admitted that at least five million acres can be brought back into production. Responsible people say that one million acres of land brought back into production would be capable of producing 250,000 store cattle, and that would mean an immense amount of meat for us. Some of that land could be made to grow corn.
It may not be appreciated that in Great Britain today we have only half the acreage under wheat that we had 80 years ago. Eighty years ago we had to rely on hand labour and forced ploughing, and in these days of machinery we ought to aim at a much bigger arable acreage than we have. Farmers generally will fight against that, but we ought to do it. I see hundreds of thousands of acres about the country which were not even used for arable purposes during the war. When I make a journey through the Cotswolds, I see field after field which has never been ploughed up. That land ought to be tackled and we ought to grow more food here not only for defence purposes in the event of war but to save us from starvation.
In regard to the suggestion that we should grow more corn in this country, I would add that we should stockpile it on the farm. One or two hon. Members have made that point. The hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Dye), did so. The hon. Member for Devonport (Mr. Foot) also did so, and he gave us some interesting comparisons. He spoke of the position in 1939 compared with that in 1951 and said what a great job the Socialist Party had done. He should do a little more research, and go back to 1929–31, when 750,000 acres of land went out of cultivation and 55,000 agricultural labourers left the land. Some figures can be made to prove anything, but those are the facts of what happened during the time of the Socialist Government between 1929–31.
The way to keep the grain and the meat of this country distributed is to have differential prices. The hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West, made that point, and I made it in the defence debate last autumn. To an overwhelming extent today we are threshing out our grain on the field with the combine harvester. If farmers can sell the grain they do so, because it is then out of the way and free from pests. The Minister of Food and the Minister of Agriculture should get together and so arrange their prices that it will pay farmers to store their grain, when they have threshed it, on their own farms. That would do away with the expensive building of silos. Many farm buildings are not fully occupied. If attention were paid to them and the walls were reinforced, some of the old-fashioned buildings could be converted into silos for the storage of grain at very little expense and it would be possible to keep the grain free from interference by pests, which is one of our biggest troubles.
The same argument applies to our livestock. We cannot build sufficient cold storage accommodation for all the food necessary to feed this country in time of emergency, but we could cultivate our land and have that stock in every quarter of Great Britain. It would be safe from the enemy and it would be a reserve to be called upon when we wanted it. Sooner or later the country will have to face this. I beg the Government to look at the matter and give it very serious attention. Instead of building new towns when we already have more towns than we can possibly support in the future, let the Government build decent cottages in the countryside, where the hardy men and women who have made this country a great nation——
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Am I right in believing that the debate should be confined to the Estimates of the Food Ministry and should not cover Estimates of the Ministry of Agriculture? Will not a debate on the Estimates of the Ministry of Agriculture take place separately later on? I submit that the bulk of the discussion which has taken place in the last half-hour is out of order on these Estimates.
No. As a matter of fact, I was taking notice of what the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) was saying about rural cottages. I thought that that was rather outside the scope of the debate, but surely storage on the farm rather than in another place was all right. However, I was taking note of what he was saying about rural cottages.
The point about rural cottages is that we cannot reclaim a million acres of land and bring it into production unless we get the labour, and, if we are to do that, we must have decent cottages in which the men can live.
Exactly, but it has to do with stockpiling. If we do not build the cottages and produce the grain, we cannot stockpile it. These things are all wrapped up together. The trouble with all these things is that there is no co-operation between the Ministry of Food and the Ministry of Agriculture. Each one in his own Department is pulling for his own ends and there is no co-operation. I hope that both Ministries will get together and do what they must both know to be right for this country.
I wish to confine my brief remarks to questions of storage alone, and to make an original suggestion, though I would not go so far as you, Mr. Speaker, have done by your remark-about storage "in another place." I hardly think that another place would appreciate it if we turned them into a granary or silo.
Before the last war there was formed a Committee, called "Mr. Bunn's Committee" from the name of the official in charge of it, to study the whole question of the storage of foodstuffs and other commodities in this country. I served on that Committee. I well remember that we went into very considerable detail as to how storage could best be carried out in relation to the facts that we knew about the form of warfare that we might expect. I well remember how very wrong we were in a great many of the ideas that we had.
Since then we have learnt that many places which looked to be the best and most natural for storage, such as harbours and ports with their long rows of warehouses beside them, are probably the most dangerous. In considering the storage of foodstuffs in this country, we must start from the beginning again, and think in terms of the sort of warfare, about which we may have some vague idea and which we may be able to predict from present scientific knowledge, that we are likely to experience.
That brings me to a point which I have put to senior Members of His Majesty's Government over the last three years. Under-water storage should be studied much more carefully. It would not be perfectly applicable to all foodstuffs but, if we could clear warehouses and other storage places by putting under water some commodities, it would clear storage areas which at present are impossibly congested. This has been done in France and Switzerland, and should be tried by experiment in this country. Any goods that are baled under pressure, as are some canned goods, fibres, metals, and so on, are suitable for this form of storage. In the last war disasters took place because of the over-concentration of storage in vulnerable areas which one can hardly contemplate without shuddering On two nights during the war we lost huge quantities of agricultural products, such as hops and rum. I do not believe we have ever recovered from the loss of the hops. There is no sign of it.
I would like His Majesty's Government to get rid of such words as "planning" but to think imaginatively, putting people in who have not spent all their lives thinking of the ordinary method of storage in warehouses which is now, unfortunately, too vulnerable for most purposes. They should think of this country as a series of lakes surrounded by water where under-water storage could easily be done. They might get all available old vessels, fill them, sink them, pump air into them and bring them up again when wanted. They are perfect under-water media. It needs efforts by the Ministers concerned to overcome prejudice and dislike of a rather novel system of storage, but it is well worth considering because it has been proved by the Swiss and the French that a good many things can be stored in that way, including high explosives. A great deal of ammunition can be stored under water. The new spraying techniques developed in America would undoubtedly be at our disposal.
I urge the Government, who pay tribute to science, to take a scientific and new view of storage. They will find many categories of goods which they have not thought of as being suitable for this form of storage, thereby having them readily available after an emergency or a heavy bombing. It would surprise the Government, and others who have not studied this form of storage, particularly in regard to food for which we have not enough of the normal type of storage available——
We have all been interested in the expert knowledge which the hon. Gentleman has put at the disposal of the House. May I ask whether, if we are thinking in terms of storage under water, the possibility of destruction through radio activity as a result of the atom bomb will be greater than ever? The results made public after the Bikini tests, which showed that a harbour is radio-active, make it silly to talk of submarine warfare, and storage under water if it is at the coast.
May I try to help the hon. Gentleman? If an atom bomb fell in this country in such a way as to render under-water storage radio-active, it would have destroyed totally huge quantities of stuff stored on dry land. After the radioactive period under water had passed, however, a considerable proportion of that stuff would be usable, whereas that on land in the vicinity of the bomb would have been destroyed completely.
I shall refer shortly to Subhead M because this is obviously the matter which has retained the interest of the House, it being the first instalment of the stockpiling plan. For that reason it is an opportunity to get an idea from the Government, not only of their intentions, but of their estimate of being able to fulfil their intentions under the existing methods, and to what extent they will adapt their methods to the new objectives.
There are two ways in which they could achieve the objective of stockpiling. One is by increased purchases over and above what was purchased last year; the other is by reduced consumption. I notice that there is a saving on trading services of nearly £5 million. I take it this means that instead of the estimate of £410 million for the ceiling subsidy, we are now to have £405 million as that ceiling for the year. This may mean that subsidised foods, instead of being consumed, are being stockpiled. In that way a saving is made over the anticipated estimated expenditure. It may be that in the same way next year the Government intend to cut down on the extent of the rations we have had in this year, thereby make available extra food for stockpiling.
Of course, the effect of that on the Estimates would be that we would have a reduction in the loss on trading services—that is, on the subsidy—and an increase in the charge for the purchase and storage of emergency reserves. It is quite plain that it would not be possible to achieve the estimated expenditure for the storage of emergency reserves in that way. Therefore, it is quite clear that they do anticipate being able to get extra supplies in the following year. So far as this £3 million is concerned, no doubt the House will wish to know how far the Government have been able to get extra supplies so far over and above their original intentions and contracts. That is important, and I should like to refer first to sugar.
For example, is it for that purpose that the Government have entered into negotiations with Cuba? We were told last summer that the sugar required for the home market was 2½million tons per annum and that 500,000 tons were to come from home sources. Of the rest, 90 per cent. was to come from Commonwealth sources. This was not to be achieved at once but was to be an objective. That would leave the 250,000 tons for which negotiations are being entered into with Cuba. Is that the intention? If so, that would close the sugar market altogether and we would only be able to purchase from the Dominions and from Cuba. It may be that these negotiations are aimed at an immediate, once-for-all purchase of 250,000 tons, which might account to some extent for the additional estimate.
Sugar, of course, is particularly easy to stockpile. I submit to the hon. Gentleman that the first and most obvious place to stockpile is in the sugar bins of the people. If he could take it off the ration and so enable people to hold their own stockpiles in their own houses, we would get the best method of storing and, what is more, a perfect distribution of reserves.
There must be few people now who would not be willing and able to lay in a supply of sugar if given the opportunity, and that would be one of the most valuable ways of stockpiling. There might be at first a sugar spending "spree," but after that people would obviously be prepared to store it for themselves. After that, of course, it would be possible to stockpile, and in speaking of the stockpiling of sugar I should like to refer briefly to the payment to the British Sugar Corporation which arises, I believe, from a very much larger crop than was anticipated.
I should like the hon. Gentleman to reply to what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Crouch), because while recognising the need for sugar production in this country, to maintain an industry that is already well established, it is important to hold in balance the relative advantages of producing in this country and of importing from the Colonies, bearing in mind in particular that many of the West Indian Colonies rely almost entirely upon the sugar crop.
Looking beyond sugar, if we are to increase our purchases, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will say in what way he will be able to do this. The great disadvantage of operating on a contract for export surpluses is that we never know exactly how much we shall get; we are getting what is left over after the producing country has taken what it requires, and the more prosperous is the producing country, the less will be the amount available for export. Where we take the entire exportable surplus of a country, as in the case of the Dominions, it is extremely difficult to see how at present we shall be able to get increased supplies unless the Dominions can step up their production. I should like the hon. Gentleman, therefore, to say what plans are being made to bring about such an increase. We know of the Queensland scheme, but what other plans are being made to enable us to purchase more meat and other supplies of that kind?
I understand that in order to maintain and to encourage production, we have already had to resort to retrospective price increases on, for example, lamb from New Zealand. The normal long-term contracts provide for a maximum increase of 7½per cent. per annum. That, apparently, was not enough, and therefore an increase of 5½ per cent. had to be made on purchases already effected. That is one of the things which happens in the case of the Dominions when we take their entire exportable surpluses, but in other cases, when making minimum contracts with the possibility of making purchases over and above the contract figure, we are in effect again buying the exportable surplus after the country has exported more advantageously to other countries.
In a time of rising prices it is extremely difficult to overcome this problem. If we make a contract for a determinate amount at a determinate price, someone will immediately enter the market and bid above that price and so prevent our getting more than the minimum which has been agreed upon. That, I believe, is what happened with the bacon contracts with Holland, when the remainder went to Germany. It is the sort of difficulty which is liable to be encountered, and I hope very much that the hon. Gentleman will give the House an indication of how he is going to adjust his purchasing methods to enable stockpiling to be possible at all. The present indications are that, so far from our being able to get more of what we require, we shall probably get less.
We have had an interesting debate, at a fairly low temperature, and I will try to avoid raising it at this stage. Of the three substantial points which have been raised, I had better deal with the first two and then with the major point which has been raised. The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton), asked for an explanation about the sum relating to the British Sugar Corporation. He asked also for an additional figure about the total Excise Duty that it was anticipated would be recovered on the sugar. I am told that this figure is about £2⅓ million.
In turning to the British Sugar Corporation, I shall not endeavour to explain the basis for the deficiency payment. I am told that it is based on a formula devised by two senior wranglers, without whose assistance I should have some difficulty in explaining it to the House. Quite simply, however, the basis of the payment is that it represents, broadly speaking, the difference between the cost of raw sugar made from beet and the cost of imported raw cane sugar. It is for that very good reason that I find it impossible to follow the hon. Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Crouch). It is generally recognised that for strategic and other purposes it is worth while subsidising the sugar industry.
What has happened this year is that we have had a record campaign. When the last factory closed at Cantley, the whole of the record crop of over 5,200,000 tons of beet had been delivered to the factories and processed. That is a record harvest by over 700,000 tons.
That means, if we think of one of the important reasons for our relying upon this industry, that through this record harvest we save 80 million dollars. We can be proud of this industry and what it has achieved this year. Apart from the record output, the average yield in tons per acre is higher than we have ever before attained. In consequence of this success and notwithstanding the improved efficiency of the Corporation in dealing with the throughput, so much greater is the deficiency payment which has to be made to the Corporation.
I was asked also about Subhead F, which relates to the Food and Agriculture Organisation. The explanation is quite simple, and I am obliged to the hon. Member who asked me to give it. We normally pay our contribution to the Food and Agriculture Organisation by instalments. This year, the F.A.O. have been transferring their headquarters to Rome, and a special appeal was made to the member states to pay their contributions as closely together as possible. Therefore, we have paid our two contributions together and so have assisted the Organisation during the period in which they are transferring their headquarters to Rome.
The major subject of the debate was stockpiling. Inevitably, hon. Members have spoken in the dark, and I am afraid, as I am sure they themselves would anticipate, that they will remain in the dark. It has not been the policy of the Ministry of Food to reveal their stock position. The Ministry are prudent traders and it would be most unwise for them to do that. Quite apart from that, everyone will realise that the last thing that could be expected from the Ministry would be a disclosure of their strategic stockpile. Therefore, I must deal generally with the debate and avoid being trapped into giving either of those figures.
The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton referred to a very interesting article in the "Economist." As he knows, that is an article in which the "Economist" said, correctly, that
The cost of food, as measured by the official index of retail prices, rose by only 4 per cent. while the prices of primary commodities (food and raw materials) traded on the American markets rose by 50 per cent.
It went on to say:
The British consumer escaped—last year at any rate—the major burdens inflicted on the rest of the world by inflation. He ate more, but in doing so he seems to have cost the Exchequer no more in subsidies than the stated limit of £410 million.
No. I think it is fair to say that the "Economist" points out two reasons. I shall give both. It says:
But such stability was possible only because the Ministry could afford to take a firm line with suppliers that were asking for higher prices; instead of importing at higher cost, it used up stocks at old cost.
I think that is the point which the hon. Member had in mind. It gives that as the first reason and goes on to say:
it is also true that the long-term contract—whatever advantages may be claimed for it—puts very great restraints upon a buyer who is anxious to avoid charging higher retail prices for food.
That is the point to which the hon. Member has referred. It says that through Government long-term purchase a limit is put upon price variation. So far as the second factor is concerned that is well known and can be established. Our long-term contracts are known, and it is known that the periodic price variation is tied, say, to 5 or 7½ per cent. The other argument, however, was pure speculation, because the author of the article goes on to say:
the Ministry of Food never discloses its stocks in the belief that it thereby protects its bargaining power.
I am dealing with the second point. The article in the "Economist" attributes the relatively low price increases of foodstuffs in this country to the two factors to which I have referred—that we have Government bulk purchase, and that our stocks, it is alleged, have run down. All I say about the latter point is that the article itself says by implication that that is purely speculation. It is not based on any specific information because, as the writer states, the Ministry refuses to give particulars about its stocks.
I wish to say at once that it is inaccurate about stocks. I wish to keep off the point that seemed to trouble my hon. Friend the Member for Wandsworth, Central (Mr. R. Adams) but I would say, as this was raised by the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. M. Macpherson), that the savings will be substantially greater than are shown for the purpose of this Supplementary Estimate.
That, again, is a matter from which wrong conclusions should not be drawn. I will give one example. We anticipate in this financial year a substantial saving of £15 million or more on cocoa because we have de-controlled cocoa and disposed of our stocks; but it would be very wrong to come to the conclusion from such figures that we have been running down stocks. What we have done has been to transfer the stocks to the private trade to the advantage of the Exchequer during the financial year.
Other points were raised by the hon. Member touching broadly on the stock position. There was, for instance, the question of our purchases of wheat, and again, as I have already made clear, I do not intend to reveal any figures about stocks. But we have, of course, in order to establish whether our stock position has gone up or down, to set off consumption against supplies. Wheat is a good example, because the consumption of wheat in this country has fallen.
I wish to make one further point about wheat. A point was made, probably without realising its implication, which I understood to be a criticism about the wheat that has been sent to India. I hope that I was wrong. Apparently I was wrong' We all appreciate the reason for sending that wheat to India. It is to prevent starvation there. We must take a collective view about our Commonwealth responsibilities. That is another matter which affects the question of stockpiling and the trade relationships which we should have with the producing countries of the world. This, again, brings us back to Government bulk purchase, because that is a useful instrument for welding together the essential trade relationships upon which the defence of this country, so far as foodstuffs and raw materials are concerned, must essentially depend.
I think there is a tendency—I say no more than that—rather to exaggerate the importance of stockpiling. It is quite impossible for this country of all countries to envisage the stockpiling, for example, of a year's consumption even of imported foodstuffs. We could not consider this problem in that sort of light What we have to do is to look at one or two primarily important and possibly temporary factors. We have to look at the immediate consequences of the possible loss of sources of supply and the time it will take to organise alternative sources of supply.
We have to think of the matter, as one hon. Member who intervened in the debate said, largely in terms of shipping. We regard this matter in terms of safeguarding ourselves against the dislocation of shipping. Therefore, we concern ourselves with bulky commodities, that type of commodity which by being stored here can save the maximum amount of shipping space, and we also bear in mind a point emphasised in the debate—whether they can be easily stored.
I agree that regard must be had to the availability of labour if we are to deal with stocks that have to be turned over. That in turn means that we have to consider whether we are to have stocks which can remain untouched for a considerable time or whether we should consider storing stocks which have repeatedly to be turned over. From the point of view of shipping, we have to bear in mind the point made by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton. We must have regard to the haul of a foodstuff to this country—to its length, and the importance of the commodity to this country, and the possibility of the haul being interrupted.
In this kind of context, it is obvious that my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport (Mr. Foot) put his finger on one of the important factors in the case. It is very important to bear in mind that British agriculture today is far more fully mobilised for possible use in emergency than it has ever been before in peace-time. If we are considering the question of a strategic stockpile of food, we have to recognise that it is fortunate that we have made this rapid recovery so far as livestock is concerned. We have to realise, as I think my hon. Friend said, that we are not only concerned with preserving the ration on the hoof but it is important to remember, in considering other bulky commodities, that the average production of wheat in this country this year is 2,500,000 tons, as against barely more than 1,500,000 tons in 1936–39. The annual production of barley is about double. Sugar beet has been mentioned and we should give credit to all concerned for producing such a record crop.
That is one part of the picture. When we are comparing ourselves with pre-war and asking whether we have learned lessons from the pre-war position, the answer is, yes, we have. We have here indigenous natural resources more fully utilised and making us less dependent on imports if a state of emergency should occur.
Another point which I imagine everyone would concede without trying to ruffle the even temper of the debate by reference to bulk purchase in principle, is that, at any rate for these purposes, without discussing the imports by bulk purchase as such, the machinery of Government purchase against the background of what we have to do makes it much easier to build up a stockpile than was possible before the war. Reference has been made to the position before the war. Every hon. Member knows that there were extreme difficulties in building a stockpile then. There is no reason at all why I should not reveal the commodities in which we were interested before the war, and I should have thought that everyone knew the very grave difficulties there were then.
There was, first, the question of stockpiling whale oil when Unilever's complained that they had been shabbily treated and we had to develop the processes of trying to deal with these matters in co-operation with industry. Grain and storage have been mentioned. We had difficulties at Liverpool where, on the purely physical ground of storage capacity, there was difficulty. I do not blame anyone for this; it was a new problem. But we have learned from experience. In regard to Rumanian wheat there was further difficulty and generally the corn traders felt they were being regarded by the Government of the day as less trustworthy than they ought to have been. In reference to sugar, there were all the difficulties with Messrs. Tate and Lyle and their reluctance to hold stocks when the price was falling.
Against that sort of background, I should have thought that, whether we like bulk purchase or not, everyone would say that here are circumstances in which Government buying makes it so much the easier to tackle the job. I have dealt with three major commodities, but we should think of the final year before the war, when Sir Arthur Salter pressed the Government on this matter and wrote to the responsible Minister saying:
I do entreat you to give your personal attention to the question of bringing in large supplies at once. A great deal could be done by urgent action in even a few weeks.
The Government later decided to spend £5 million on the procurement of foodstuffs, but the war came before that was implemented to any great extent. I am
not referring to this by way of stricture, but because I should have thought that anyone would realise that this sort of difficulty is so much the less likely to arise today.
Turning to the subhead under discussion, I have been asked why it is £3 million and why not some other figure? The point has been made that this, of course, is only a beginning of a stockpiling programme. I can answer very shortly. It is £3 million because we need £3 million to buy the commodities we intend to stockpile before the end of the financial year. That is the position, but I am not going to be drawn into saying what those commodities are. We are asking for the sum under this subhead so that we can identify these purchases for stockpiling. It would be easy to carry through the purchase on our ordinary trading account, but the reason we have asked for it under the subhead is to provide that the items we do in fact purchase are identified.
I have been asked about these commodities and whether I am satisfied that all the steps that ought to be taken have been taken. I can give the House my assurance that I am satisfied with the progress of the programme. That means, as the House must realise by deduction, that we have completed, or are on the way to completing, our arrangements for the purchase of these essential foodstuffs for the stockpile.
There was a great deal of discussion about storage. Two hon. Members present served with me on the Estimates Committee when we considered the food Estimates. I can say for myself, and can support it by reference to the Report if challenged, that our general impression was that on the question of storage the Ministry of Food had really a very good record. The losses were surprisingly small in view of the very large volume of commodities held in stock on behalf of the Ministry. I have been asked why we do not make use of more accommodation. My reply is that we do not need more accommodation at the moment, so suggestions for increasing our accommodation do not arise regarding these present commodities. It was queried from two angles; I was advised, on the one hand, to make greater use of emergency accommodation and, on the other hand I was told that emergency accommodation was
still being used and far too many
I will not deal with it, to the hon. Member's satisfaction, because it is not necessary—[Interruption.]Additional storage is not necessary for present purposes. The fact is that we do not require all this storage at the moment. The other factor, which is fairly obvious if any hon. Member reffects upon it, is that the pressure of storage is so much a seasonal matter. In the same commodity we may be short of storage one month but have an abundance a few months later. We paid particular attention to one of the instances of the use of this emergency storage and, while everyone will agree that this was not satisfactory and better storage would have provided better cover for the grain, yet I think we were satisfied that, notwithstanding those difficulties, the grain was remarkably well looked after. To put it in a neutral way, the losses were remarkably small.
Does the hon. Gentleman when he says that no additional storage is needed, mean by implication that he does not consider it necessary to make a strategic stockpile of imported wheat and to provide the storage for it?
I was about to go on to that point. In short, all I have dealt with so far have been the present storage requirements, and I should just like to say a little generally about the future position in regard to storage as we see it. As has been indicated, we must both increase our storage capacity and improve it. I have been asked about the steps taken to co-ordinate these matters, which are indeed matters requiring a good deal of co-ordination. This is being thought about; the matter is under active review; but the very fact that a good measure of co-ordination is required means that it will take time to get a very firm view about our storage requirements.
I put it in these three ways. First, we are not worried about storage for the immediate stockpiling that we are considering under this Estimate. Secondly, we are not unduly worried about the manner in which our foodstuffs are at present stored, recognising that some of it is stored under conditions which were emergency conditions which have continued to be used after the war. Thirdly—and this I would emphasise—as part of the stockpiling programme we must provide storage accommodation and consider very carefully with other Departments the type, character and allocation of such accommodation.
Let me make this reservation. It seems to me that, if we are dealing with commodities that have to be turned over and perhaps processed—and I am speaking very broadly about this, because I do not want to prejudge discussion on it—we must not be completely uneconomical about it; we must be prepared for dispersal at the point of emergency and see that we have safeguarded ourselves in providing for very rapid and immediate dispersal. I will put it no higher than that it might be unwise to carry out too great a dispersal of the stocks that have to be turned over and so put into production.
The Parliamentary Secretary is being extremely cautious, and we thank him for that, but this is an important point. He says that, concerning storage, discussions about co-ordination have been going on. Is that an inter-departmental committee? Or is it a Minister—presumably it will have to be the Minister of Defence—who is responsible for seeing that something comes out of these discussions? From sad experience we know only too well, from lessons of the past, the need for urgency and for quick decisions.
I was talking of Ministerial responsibility. I can say that there is full inter-departmental consultation. On that, again, I should not like to give the formal description of the consultations that have taken place, but they are continuing—and continuing in the light of the assurances I have given the House.
Before the hon. Gentleman leaves that point, did I understand quite rightly what he was saying? Is he saying that in the view of the Government there is no particular need to disperse the stocks until, as he said, the moment of urgency came? Does that mean they envisage that the stocks, whatever they are, will remain in their normal peace-time place, and as soon as an emergency arises everything will be shifted around the country to somewhere else?
No, I was not attributing any view to the Government. I said it struck me, as things were at present, that this at any rate was a prudent consideration. I put it no higher than that. If we have stocks which have to be turned over because they cannot be kept for longer than a limited time, but which should nevertheless be stockpiled, then we should consider how those stocks should be withdrawn from normal circulation. If they go into circulation, they go in against replacements. All I am suggesting for the moment is that we should consider whether or not such stocks should be left where the traditional processing plant is, and so avoid uneconomic costs at the moment, provided we can satisfy ourselves that they can be transported easily and quickly to another point of storage.
I say no more than this. This is a factor which obviously must be carefully considered in the light of other circumstances. I imagine that such a matter must be considered in the light of any representations the Minister of Transport might make about it, because such a suggestion would not be accepted unless we were satisfied on transport grounds. I do not put that forward in any dogmatic way. I only put it forward as an illustration of the many sorts of problems which have to be considered and given weight to if we are to proceed on a programme of providing additional storage accommodation for emergency purposes in this country.
I know I have disappointed many hon. Members who expected me to say something about the details of our stockpiling, but I am sure that on reflection they will agree that, just as great pains were taken before the war in 1939 to keep these activities secret, so today we must equally take pains to see that the country is not prejudiced even by speculation about the commodities which we consider essential to stockpile in the interests of the country.