I beg to move,
That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the Order, dated 12th April 1951, entitled the Fats, Cheese and Tea (Rationing) (Amendment No. 3) Order, 1951 (S.I., 1951, No. 641) a copy of which was laid before this House on 12th April, be annulled.
As the House is well aware, these debates, which have been initiated from time to time in the form of Prayers, are begun sometimes to exact further actual detailed information and sometimes to get a more general idea of what the Government have in view. I rise to start what I imagine will not be a very prolonged debate and to ask a few questions of the Government. I am pleased to
see the Leader of the House present on this occasion. I had hoped that a senior member of the Government would be here, because I wanted to raise a governmental question rather than a purely cheese question.
To get the matter in perspective, it would be only right to give a short account of the history of the cheese ration, and that is not to go back either to the Conquest or to the Battle of Waterloo, but to start with the position last December—only four brief months ago. For some 20 months before December the cheese ration had been two ounces, but on 13th December the Minister of Food announced in the House that the level of the meat ration was being reduced as from the last day of the year. While he went on to regret the unpleasant news, as he called it, he proceeded to say that he was glad to have better news of two other rationed foods, i.e., that he would be able to increase the domestic sugar ration from the same date and the cheese ration from two ounces to three ounces a week on 28th January.
In that statement, which I have read and re-read, there is nothing to indicate that this was a temporary arrangement; in fact, the context in which it was given led the House and many housewives to assume—wrongly, as it turned out—that this extra ounce and this extra amount of sugar were compensation rations for the reduction in the quantity of meat which was coming to us. I do not think that there was any doubt about it. It was, so to speak, a cheese tit for a meat tat. It was a little more of one and a little less of the other.
On 28th January that increase was forthcoming. Everybody expected that it would continue, at any rate, while the meat ration was as low as a shilling. The next month the meat ration went down again, this time to the lowest figure ever known in the country. That made people think—again, a reasonable assumption—that the cheese ration would certainly continue in view of the fact that it had been increased when the meat ration was reduced to the figure that it was. It was, therefore, with considerable surprise and distress that we read Order No. 470, dated 19th March, which reduced the ration from three to two ounces as from 25th March. That was undoubtedly a very great shock to everybody, because the assumption had been that the extra cheese was a compensation in some form or another for as long as the meat ration was so small.
Arising out of that situation, my hon. Friends instituted a debate on 9th April. I did not take part in it, but they argued the case and produced evidence of what they thought were possible sources of further cheese supply. The Parliamentary Secretary's answer proving unsatisfactory, not for the first time in questions of this sort—not through lack of courtesy or charm on his part, but owing to the intractable material with which he had to deal—a Division was called. There was nothing in the way of a snap Division about this, nor was it at a late hour of the morning—it took place at an earlier hour than the present moment—and the result was that the Government were defeated by 237 votes to 219 and the Prayer was therefore carried. Legally, as I understand it—at any rate, in the view of some lawyers—the ration automatically returned to three ounces from that moment.
The right hon. Gentleman the Foreign Secretary, who was the acting Prime Minister at that time, was in the House and it fell to me to ask him what the Government proposed to do in view of the Prayer having been carried against the reduction of the cheese ration. He had been sitting there—it was always a sign of discomfort in his case—frowning and with his arms crossed, but he rose most courteously and replied:
The Government propose to accept the decision of the House."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th April, 1951; Vol. 486, c. 781.]
I should like to know what was meant by that phrase. It could not mean in the purely technical and literal sense that the Government accepted that the Prayer would have to be presented, which is possibly what the Government may now twist it into, because, the Prayer having been carried in the House, constitutionally the Government have no alternative. It is purely automatic and, therefore, it was not necessary for the right hon. Gentleman to say that. If that was what he meant, that the Government proposed to accept the decision of the House, the Government did not "propose" that because it could not help itself. That is what it had to do.
If the words meant anything at all, I am sure that the impression they made upon all of us sitting here at that time on either side of the House was that the Government proposed to do something towards meeting the arguments which had been raised from this side of the House. Saying that the Government proposed to accept the decision of the House could, in ordinary language, only mean that for some time or other, be it short or long, the Government intended the cheese ration to remain at three ounces.
It is not as if the Government could not have said other things. The Foreign Secretary could have said, "This is an impossible situation. We shall have to think about what we are going to do," or he could have said, "It is intolerable that by only 237 votes to 219 the House should have decided anything and we must ask the House at once to reverse it." He could have said that and many other things, but he did not. He said, "The Government propose to accept the decision of the House," and so everybody went home quite happy. I quite agree that afterwards the Government might have come along and said that they had been placed in a very awkward situation and that they had to let the three ounces continue for two or three weeks in deference to the express wish of the House but as they had no more cheese the ration would have to come down again. That is another thing that they might have done.
The Minister might have resigned. That might have been another alternative. We should then have had one more statement, but I am sure that it would have been a very different one from some that we have heard. Or he might have said. "There is only so much cheese in the country. We can only see ahead a certain distance. But instead of dropping it from three to two ounces we might drop it from three to 2½ ounces for a certain time and for the rest of the time have it at 1½ ounces to cover the stocks which we have. [Laughter.] It is no good hon. Gentleman laughing about the 1½ ounces, because the cheese ration was at 1½ ounces for over 12 months from April, 1948, to May, 1949, in the time of a Labour Government. So there was nothing odd about that. Though it may be unpleasant, it obviously was not an impracticable proposition.
But none of this occurred. What happened was this: the Division was taken at about 10 o'clock on the Monday night
and the Government agreed to accept the decision of the House. Yet at 4 o'clock on Wednesday afternoon the Minister said that the Government had decided to reestablish the two-ounce ration. I have his words here. He said:
An Order in Council will shortly be made to give effect to the prayer for the annulment of the amending order."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th April, 1951, Vol. 486, c. 1039]
I say that was inevitable, that it was not within the choice of the Government.
The right hon. Gentleman went on to say that as soon as possible after the announcement an order would be laid before the House to re-establish the two-ounce ration.
At the same time the right hon. Gentleman, knowing that full knowledge of the stocks was essential to a complete appreciation of this problem, kindly offered, across the floor of the House, to inform me confidentially of what were the stocks. I consulted the Leader of the Opposition and others of my colleagues and we came to the conclusion that it would be difficult for three or four Members on this bench to have confidential information not available to all hon. Members on both sides of the House. I think probably the House as a whole thinks that it is better that information on a matter of this kind should be kept by the Government to themselves. Therefore, I do not know what the exact stock situation is.
That was the announcement made on the Wednesday afternoon. The next day we had the Vice-Chamberlain of the Household giving us the Gracious Message that directions had been given to annul the order. That very same day the new order was made. It is that to which we take exception. As to what legal consequences may or may not flow from the advice given by the Minister to the trade, whether he was entitled to tell them entirely to disregard the action of the House which annulled the two-ounce ration on the Monday and restored the three-ounce, if he is lucky enough to catch your eye, Sir, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) will probably make some observations. They are legal points, to which we look forward, because we have not the benefit of either of the Law Officers of the Crown, including the new Law Officer, whom I am sure we all congratulate on his promotion. If he is to become learned in the intricacies of this subject, he will have a very busy time in the next few days.
That is the chief point I wish to raise, and about which I formally ask the Government to give us an explanation. On the face of it, having said on Monday that they were prepared to accept the decision of the House, by the Wednesday they could not possibly have scoured the world to see if there was more cheese anywhere. They could not even have examined the suggestion of the hon. Lady the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mrs. Mann), who said that some of what the right hon. Lady who used to be at the Ministry of Food called "fancy cheeses," could be brought within the ration. None of the suggestions which had been made could possibly have been explored in that time.
Nor is there anything, as the result of this, to show that there is a co-ordinated plan as between cheese and meat which was the assumption that the House and the country reasonably made last December. The time, obviously, was not sufficient for that exploration, and while I do not want to argue the whole question over again tonight, I think that the Government have, by the action they have taken consequent upon the very direct statement of the Foreign Secretary, who was then in the House and acting as Prime Minister, completely flouted the decision of the House. If it was not for the fact that the word has come into common parlance since that day, I wonder whether, within the meaning of the word attributed to it by the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan), this was a manoeuvre. I think it must have been, but of course the Government would not have described it as such then, because no one would have thought of using that word in that sense; but now it has passed into the language——
Nothing is copyright in the House, as the hon. Member will learn when he has been here a little longer. If the Government are trying to tell us tonight that by accepting the decision of the House they only meant that they were going to present the Prayer for annulment, then that meant nothing at all—they could not help doing that; it is automatic under our constitutional procedure.
If, on the other hand, the Government meant seriously that they were accepting the decision of the House, then I say—as, I am sure, anybody else would say who thought for five minutes on the subject—that they could not have gone through all the necessary investigation in less than 48 hours before they made the decision that the original order which had been annulled was to be restored. It is either a quibble or a manoeuvre or it is flouting the will of the House, and I invite the Leader of the House to explain the attitude of the Government.
The Minister of Food gave last week what, I suppose, one would describe in contemporary phraseology a "world premiere" of the defence which he no doubt proposes to present tonight. It seemed to me that the fallacy which lay behind it was his no doubt perfectly sincere belief that because he and his methods could not obtain any more cheese anywhere in the world, therefore nobody else and no other methods could do so. There is nothing in the right hon. Gentleman's record on this or any subject to support that contention.
The two points which I desire to put to the House, and for which I shall be grateful to the right hon. Gentleman if he would deal with them, relate not so much to the merits of the Order now before the House as to the fact that it is presented in defiance both of an express promise made on behalf of the Government and of constitutional propriety. On the aspect which relates to the constitutional propriety, I ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider whether it is not the fact that when a Minister of the Crown finds himself unable to carry out the express wishes of the House, his duty is to resign his office and to let somebody else have a chance to try to carry out the wishes of the House. But Ministers nowadays do not resign on the grounds of their own defects but only on the grounds of the defects of their colleagues.
What the right hon. Gentleman has to face tonight, apart from the constitutional propriety of this Order itself, is the express promise given on behalf of His Majesty's Government by the acting Prime Minister, in the words we had quoted by my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank).
I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman, when he replies, will really contend that this Order amounts even to an attempt to carry out that promise I shall be interested to hear the argument, but it is surely abundantly clear from an ordinary and common-sense point of view that what the Foreign Secretary was doing was undertaking on behalf of His Majesty's Government to accept, at any rate for a little time, the express will of this House that the cheese ration should not be reduced from the level of three ounces at which level it was before the Order to annul was introduced, to the level of two ounces, to which it was reduced by that Order and which it is again proposed to reduce it by the Order now before the House.
There was an express Ministerial pledge, and it seems to me, that it is a matter a good deal more important than even an ounce of cheese that Ministerial undertakings given at that Box should be scrupulously honoured. [An HON. MEMBER: "Where is the cheese?"] An hon. Member asks, "Where is the cheese?" That is a question which, with respect, should be addressed to the Foreign Secretary, who gave the undertaking. It is interesting to see to what extent an attempt was made to implement the pledge. The day following the pledge, indeed, within 24 hours, the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Food addressed a circular to the trade and was good enough, on 23rd April, to publish in the OFFICIAL REPORT the terms of that circular.
I will ask the House to judge the extent to which an attempt was being made within 24 hours to honour the pledge made on behalf of His Majesty's Government. The statement was in these terms:
Following last night's Vote in the House of Commons in favour of the Prayer against the Fats, Cheese and Tea (Rationing) (Amendment No. 2) Order, 1951, the Ministry of Food state that constitutionally the annulment of this Order must await the making of the necessary Order in Council by His Majesty in Council. The Minister of Food is considering what further action should be taken, and intends to make a full statement in the House of Commons tomorrow."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd April, 1951; Vol. 487, c. 4.]
I am not proposing to enter with the right hon. Gentleman into a rarefied legal argument as to the precise constitutional and legal effect of the act of annulment by His Majesty in Council, but it is perfectly clear to anyone reading the document, and particularly to the traders to whom it was addressed, that it was intended to mean that the two-ounce ration remained in effect notwithstanding the action of the House of Commons.
Had the right hon. Gentleman wished to write an essay in constitutional law for the benefit of his correspondents, he would have added the material factor, which he did not add, to the effect that whether the Order remained in force or not, it was, under the Statutory Instruments Act, completely unenforceable from the very moment the House passed the Order requesting His Majesty for annulment. The right hon. Gentleman did no such thing and no one reading the document can but be convinced that he was seeking to suggest to those in the trade that they were still bound to a limit of two ounces on the ration. Indeed, he gave confirmation of that on the following day when he made his statement to the House. The right hon. Gentleman will recall that I asked him a supplementary question, the material part of which is:
Will the right hon Gentleman therefore make it clear that any trader, wholesaler or retailer, who from today wishes to honour a three-ounce ration can do so with impunity?
the right hon. Gentleman said:
No, Sir. There are differing legal views about it. I have been in very close consultation with lawyers about the position. It is a very difficult position for traders. I am satisfied that the Order stands until it has been annulled and, therefore, I cannot make a statement of that sort to traders. Indeed, I hope that traders will act responsibly and maintain the ration at the present level."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th April, 1951; Vol. 486, c. 1041.]
It is perfectly clear from that that the right hon. Gentleman was acting quite consistently in his determination, firstly, during the interval before he could make a new Order to seek to ensure, really by bluff, that traders did not produce the ration which, legally, they were allowed to produce and, secondly, that he was not making the slightest attempt to carry out the Foreign Secretary's undertaking to the House to the effect that the Government accepted the decision of the House.
The right hon. Gentleman was acting—I hope he will allow me to say so without any personal discourtesy—in a manner in which a Minister of the Crown should not act because it is an immemorial custom, when Ministers of the Crown send official communications to persons with whom they are officially connected, that they should, if anything, be over scrupulous not to pretend to powers which they have not got. In fact, the whole confidence of the community in Ministers of the Crown is based upon the belief that Ministers will not attempt to "pull a fast one" over them on difficult questions of law.
Therefore, it seems to me that the right hon. Gentleman's conduct in this matter is open to legitimate criticism both on those grounds and because of the attitude which he adopted towards the House and the undertaking given to the House by his right hon. Friend. The feature of this affair, which I think the right hon. Gentleman must acknowledge, and must almost stress if he is to defend his attitude, is the failure of his Department to maintain the cheese ration even at the level at which he had sought to put it as a compensation for the reduction of the meat ration. Though it seems a strong thing to say, some of us have, as a matter of comparison, almost come to hanker for the wider vision and more competent administration of Sir Ben Smith, because at least we did not then have failure after failure to maintain the ration.
The hon. Member has referred to failure after failure to maintain the ration. Which particular ration? Would he give the House details of the rations that have been reduced?
The right hon. Gentleman will recall meat. He will recall that he reduced the number of eggs made available this year compared with last year, and his failure even now to reach the point which he had reached last year several weeks before now when he was able to supply eggs off the ration. Those are sufficient facts. If he wants more, there is the devaluation of the sausage. I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman, who has stood so often at that Box and excused and apologised for those cuts, should now apparently not be able readily to call them to mind.
I am reminded of the fact that the right hon. Gentleman began his administration by announcing that his slogan would be, "A little of what you fancy does you good." Very few of us realised the sardonic cynicism behind the word "little."
Those of us who are not versed in the law are often amazed at the considerable time it takes those who are legally trained to go round and round a matter. I have tried very hard tonight to find out the reason for the Prayer which has been put down by the Opposition. In the past there were two reasons why the Opposition did not take their Prayers to a vote. The first was that they did not really agree with their own arguments and merely put down the Prayers, to use their own term, to harry this side of the House. The other was that they did not wish the public to know how few of them there were in the House at the time the Prayers were taken. It will be remembered that on the occasion when we tried to tempt them into the Lobby, we could not do so, and the Division lists recorded the names on one side only.
I appreciate that for a back bencher to challenge the right hon. and gallant Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank) is perhaps inviting trouble, but I am prepared to take a chance. In moving the annulment of this Order, the right hon. and gallant Gentleman said that the Opposition had two aims—to extract detailed information, and to find out what the Government had in view. I have here a copy of the OFFICIAL REPORT containing the detailed information which was given when the previous order was annulled. I should have thought this information was understandable even to the Opposition. There was only sufficient cheese in the country to honour a two-ounce ration.
It seems to me that in raising this Prayer tonight the Opposition have reduced politics to a "Gilbert and Sullivanism"—and it is time the public knew it. The Order refers to fats, cheese and tea—eggs and meat are not mentioned; and I will confine myself to cheese.—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I will not be shouted down by hon. Members either. The amazing thing about the Opposition in raising these Prayers is that they do not know when to leave well alone. They have put both feet in it badly on this Prayer, because they won the Division on the previous Prayer and I should have thought it was best for them to leave matters as they were and not to expose themselves once more to the country in this matter.
The Opposition have taken the Minister of Food to task for introducing an order cancelling the three-ounce ration two days after the acting Prime Minister said that he accepted the decision of the House. We all know that the decision of the House has to be accepted. What I should like to know is how much longer the Opposition would have liked the Minister to wait before laying this additional order? Would they have liked him to wait until all the cheese had run out? The Parliamentary Secretary has told the House that there was enough cheese in the country to honour a three-ounce ration until the end of the present month, and no more. It seems to me that the Opposition are determined only to harrass the Government on this matter. If this is their idea of harassing the Government, I might inform them that they do not make a good job of it.
For hon. Members opposite to talk about manoeuvres, after the manoeuvres they have executed to keep out of the Lobby on Prayers during the past few months, shows that they do not understand the correct application of the word. I intervene to let the Opposition know, as they seem incapable of finding out by any other means, that the housewives, to whose rescue they say they are always rushing, know full well that there is not sufficient cheese in this country to honour a three-ounce ration. I cannot put it more simply than this: the cheese is not there. If hon. Members opposite would like me to go into further details I am quite willing; the night is young.
I know that I would rather have as the Minister of Food my right hon. Friend who is on the Treasury Bench than the former Minister who is quoted by the Opposition and who had the benefit of Lend-Lease during the war. [HON. MEMBERS: "What about the cheese?"] All right, I will stick to the cheese.
I do not know whether the Opposition really have short memories or pretend that they have, but I think they will remember, if they cast their minds back as far as 9th April—I know that that is a long time for the Opposition—that the Parliamentary Secretary, in replying to the debate, said that at the end of 1950 there had been an extra supply of cheese available from America, that we had bought that, and that that had enabled us to step up the ration from two to three ounces.
It seems necessary to repeat, because the printed word does not seem enough, that we bought all the exportable surplus from New Zealand. That was gone into in detail in the last debate. Furthermore, the Parliamentary Secretary made the point that the additional 7½ per cent. which was required by the New Zealand traders was not asked for by New Zealand until their own costs were put up by something which the Opposition never tire of sneering at, and that is the Korean war. We have taken all the exportable surplus possible, but I would like, even at the risk of jeers from the Opposition——
May I interrupt? I understood that the hon. Lady was addressing her remarks to the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro). After all, they should be addressed to me.
I am so sorry, Mr. Speaker. Might I inform the noble Lord, with reference to the Korean war, that we on this side of the House, to our sorrow, have a very full view of the faces of the Opposition—I say this quite deliberately—and that every time any increase in the cost of living or any increase in prices has been attributed by hon. Members on this side of the House to the international situation and to Korea there have been jeers from the Opposition.
Perhaps the hon. Lady will allow me to make this observation. I think it will appeal to her sense of justice. I have never sneered at the Korean war or any other war, and I think it is unfortunate that she should have made this observation and attached it to me on Anzac day, considering that I fought in Gallipoli.
I am sorry; I intend no disrespect. I did not fight in Gallipoli. But I really must say—I think I am in the recollection of the House—that it was the noble Lord who rose to interrupt me and not I who interrupted him.
Now may I return to the subject of cheese? It seems to me, not being a lawyer, that there is a quite simple fact which the Opposition seem unable to grasp, and that is that whether they think the Government should have provided more cheese or whether they think the Government should provide more cheese in the future, the plain fact is that the cheese is not available at the moment. Even the Gilbert and Sullivan antics of the Opposition seem not to have found one except by raising this matter again tonight. How do they suggest that more cheese should be given to the people than is actually in the country at present? I think it is time that a housewife with a modicum of commonsense told the Opposition that this sort of stuff will do them a great deal of harm in the country.
The hon. Member for Coventry, South (Miss Burton), has been enjoying herself tonight, but she has neglected the main argument. The housewives of the country will see that this ration is now being reduced to an amount lower than the average that working-class families were consuming in 1937 and 1938, as the inquiry into household consumption in those years reveals. The Minister of Food shakes his head, but there is no need to shake his head. That is a fact laid down in the report of that inquiry, and either he must challenge that inquiry or accept the fact.
The hon. Member for Coventry, South, said that the Parliamentary Secretary had declared that the three ounces of cheese would only be available to the end of the month. I have read the speech of the Parliamentary Secretary and he said no such thing. The fact is that the Government have been very stupid in their bulk buying of cheese. They have bought a great deal of fancy cheese at high prices, because that fancy cheese does not count in the cost-of-living index.
They have failed to buy cheese that was available at lower prices both in the Southern Dominions and in the United States of America. It is true that the Minister said that he had been buying cheese in the United States at the end of last year, and he knows that that is the reason why he pushed up the ration to three ounces. He forgot, however, to tell the House that the imports of cheese were priced at £140 a ton instead of £300 a ton from Switzerland and Holland. If the Government had wanted to they could have bought this cheese from the United States and, what is more, they could have bought from Australia and New Zealand.
Last year the Government reduced their imports of cheese from the Southern Dominions from 97 to 90 per cent. of the total output. The reason why they did that was because they refused to pay Australia and New Zealand the price that those Dominions were asking. Therefore, the Dominions sold their produce elsewhere than in Great Britain. We in this country suffered from the failure of the Government to buy the cheese that we required.
We made the point during the last debate—I did not hear the hon. Lady deal with it at all—that in our view so long as the meat ration was cut down to the niggardly, low level that it was at, housewives should have more cheese. I hope that if the Minister has no better argument to give than that given by the hon. Lady, the House will again annul this Order.
I do not intend to follow the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) and deal with the technical points that he raised about the country's cheese supply, but I desire to deal with the points that were raised by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank) and the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd- Carpenter). I should, however, like to say this, in reply to the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton, that in my early life my father was, among other things, a cheesemonger, and I can say that of all the foods that are generally dealt with by grocers the one that is the most difficult to store successfully is cheese. Cheese has to be got rid of more rapidly than is the case with other commodities that are usually handled by grocers and cheesemongers.
The right hon. and gallant Gentleman was kind enough to give the Foreign Secretary notice that he intended to raise the question of what my right hon. Friend said when the Prayer was carried by the House on 9th April. It is quite clear tonight, from what has already been said by the Opposition, that there was, of course, more than one alternative open to the Government. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Yes. The Government could have resigned. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] In the form that the right hon. and gallant Gentleman addressed the question to my right hon. Friend words were used that might have indicated—and generally do when such a Motion has been carried on a really serious issue—that the Government were expected to resign. It has already been said by the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames that the Minister of Food might have been expected to resign; or I suppose, as the Minister who did give the answer, that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry might have resigned.
I am glad to see that even the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) recognises that that would have been far too serious a punishment to inflict. As the hon. Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams) has pointed out, when my hon. Friend spoke, there was no alternative to the Government but to accept the decision of the House, and sometimes it is not a bad thing even for a member of the Front Bench to state the obvious.
Immediately the House proceeded to the Motion for the Adjournment that night the Foreign Secretary gave instructions, in my hearing, to the Minister of Food that he was to examine the situation immediately so that the Government could make up their mind as to what was their proper course to pursue in view of the fact that the Order would, within a day or two, be annulled by the ordinary processes of the Constitution. My right hon. Friend did so, and he came back to us, and the matter was considered by the Government, and the effect of what the House so decided would have been this.
Had the Order been annulled and the three-ounce ration restored—and I am not going to argue with the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames about the exact point of time at which the three-ounce ration would have been restored, because I understand that that is one of the matters on which the lawyers are having the sort of verbal battle with one another that they greatly enjoy and which very much mystifies the ordinary layman—whether at the moment the House passed the Prayer or when the Order was annulled by His Majesty, the interval of time obviously, was not going to be very great.
What we discovered was that the effect of what the House had done would have been this, that the people who turned up first for the ration might have been entitled to three ounces—as far as I know there is no compulsion on a grocer to sell to the owner of the ration book the full amount of the ration—but it is quite clear that if the first people who came got the three ounces, people who came later would have had something less than three ounces.
The stocks would not have been there for the ration to be honoured. No matter what might have been the cause, that was the physical fact which would have confronted both the grocers and the people who went to them with their ration books. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Food therefore came to the House at the earliest possible moment and gave to the House an indication of the course which the Government proposed to pursue when faced by the physical facts of the situation.
Let us be quite certain of this, that no matter who may be responsible for there not being sufficient cheese to honour the three-ounce ration, it is true that the House can order, by successfully praying for the annulment of the Order, that a three-ounce ration shall be nominally available. But the only effect of reaching such a conclusion would be that which I have indicated, namely, that while some people might get the three ounces, other people certainly would not. That being the inescapable physical fact which confronted us, the Government came to the conclusion that the only thing to do was to tell the House at the earliest possible moment after it had reached that decision, what course it proposed to pursue. The Government did so, and a new Order was made and laid by my right hon. Friend, and the ordinary processes of the constitution are available for dealing with it.
I am very much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for his very clear exposition of the matter, and for answering what was, in fact, the intended purpose of this debate. I make no reference to the strange incursion of the hon. Lady opposite, the point of which I failed to understand, because I made it clear that we are only discussing the constitutional result of this position, and are not discussing the cheese ration at all as such. If the hon. Lady reads HANSARD tomorrow, she will find she has made her speech upon a false apprehension. My hon. Friend behind me, naturally, replied to what the hon. Lady said, and destroyed her case.
As I was saying, we are much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for his explanation. As I understand the situation, the Government was anxious to carry out the wishes of the House, and it had a hectic time trying to find out whether those wishes could be met. It went into immediate conference and, I presume, carried on for nearly 48 hours, night and day, until a decision was announced. That must have been a prelude to the discussions which followed a fortnight afterwards, and Cabinet Ministers were evidently getting into training for the ordeal ahead of them.
But when the right hon. Gentleman points out that if the three-ounce ration had been carried on, there would not have been enough for everyone to have it, and that it would have been a case of first come, first served, I presume that that would only have been the case for a short run. I do not know what are the exact pro- cesses of getting cheese to the grocers from the central stores, but I presume that there is a pipe-line, as it is technically called.
I had proposed to deal with certain detailed technical points, but I think that my right hon. Friend has covered the ground adequately. There is, however, one point which, I think, both sides of the House overlook. That is, that cheese is a difficult commodity to stock. It cannot be stored for a long period. It is one of the most difficult commodities to ration. Other commodities, such as coarse grains, can be stockpiled and kept in reserve. We are working to very fine margins. The difficulty has been not being able to have enough behind us. We could not, at that time, have increased the ration beyond the figure which we stated to the House. I hope that the House will accept our explanation.
I quite see the point in that, but that was not the question I was asking. I was addressing myself to the statement that if no action had been taken regarding the trade by the Minister, people would have come with their ration books and only the early ones would have got the three ounces because in that particular week there would not have been sufficient to give everybody the three-ounce ration. What I want to ask is: How long would that situation have lasted granted the cheese was there? How long, with the mechanics of it, would it have taken for that situation to disappear?
A matter of four, and possibly eight, weeks. The distribution is made normally over the country in eight weekly periods, but in some parts it is in four weekly periods. If the supplies had run out in any particular shop because of the three-ounce ration, instead of the two-ounce ration, it might have meant four weeks before other people could be supplied.
That is an interesting, technical administrative problem which we cannot discuss because we are not in a position to do so. I can only express my surprise that, in an emergency of this kind, it could not have been dealt with in less time than that. However, I accept what the right hon. Gentleman says, that there might have been some awkwardness at the start. What the right hon. Gentleman has said was that there are various interpretations which could have been put upon the Government's acceptance of the decision of the House. Ministers might have resigned, all sorts of things might have happened to them, if, in fact, discussing the thing carefully, they came to the inevitable conclusion that the ration could not be maintained at three ounces.
Following up what has already been said, it seems to me that it is a serious thing for the Government of the day on an occasion like this—and it was not an unimportant occasion—uses the time-honoured words that it will accept the decision of the House and then the right hon. Gentleman says, "Yes, the Government sometimes says the obvious, and that was the obvious thing to do." It seems unfortunate they should have used these words when they were unable, as it turned out, to do so. They were unable to accept the decision of the House except in the most formal technical sense. All I can suggest, out of the kindness of my heart, is that if they should at any future time find themselves in the same predicament in being defeated in the House on a vote they will use more guarded and sensible language and not bring into disrepute the time-honoured phrase, "the Government will accept the decision of the House," when they do not know how they are to do it. We have cleared up the point. The right hon. Gentleman did it courteously and I do not propose to do anything but beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.