Debate on the Address

Part of Orders of the Day — King's Speech – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 9th November 1951.

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Photo of Mr Maurice Webb Mr Maurice Webb , Bradford Central 12:00 am, 9th November 1951

I trust that the right hon. and gallant Gentleman will not find it embarrassing, nor consider it insincere, if I congratulate him on his appointment. He may well feel, of course, as I did, that this is a matter for commiseration rather than congratulation, but since he has returned to the House I feel that it would be the wish of all of his friends in all sections of the House to congratulate him on his arrival back in the House of Commons.

In a way, I suppose it is a good thing that he has had to face at the outset the grim facts of life which have for quite a long time now, and will do for a long time to come, governed the food situation of this country. What he has had to say this morning, and what was said earlier in the debate, by both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, was no surprise to me, and certainly no surprise to those of us on this side of the House who have long known the underlying gravity of our food situation.

Let me say at once that our food problem goes far beyond our present balance of payments crisis, grievous though that is in itself, and we shall get all muddled up in our thinking about it if we make an entirely different assumption. When we pass through this critical phase, as we shall, when we have again balanced our books, as we will—certainly that is the resolve and determination of all on this side of the House—after our efforts have once again put us on a solvent basis. we shall still face, for years to come, the most searching and anxious problem in this vital business of feeding our overcrowded island. As I have said repeatedly in the House and outside, and certainly at every election meeting I addressed, it is sheer folly to lead our people to expect a rapid, dramatic solution of their problems. There is no such solution. I must say that I regret the right hon. Gentleman's implication, if indeed it were not an explicit suggestion, that, somehow, all our problems are due to our present financial difficulties. If he takes that view, I am afraid he is not going to be successful in grappling with his problem.

Our food shortages were not due to some defect in our political ideas on this side of the House. They were not due to any clumsiness or inactivity on the part of the Labour Ministers concerned, as was so widely and recklessly stated, and repeated this morning, and before and during the Election. Our problems are inherent in our situation as an over-populated island, which cannot ever hope to feed itself, and must now compete for diminishing exportable food surpluses with the growing demands for food right across the world. That is the shape of the food problem, and that is something which all parties, all Governments, and all responsible citizens in this country have to sit down and face.

Each of us in this House represents 55,000 electors. Every day a new constituency of that size is born into the world; 55,000 new mouths to be fed—that is the food problem of this country; that is the food problem of the world. With new demands on top of existing demands, it adds up every year to well over half the electorate of this country—all new mouths to be fed, new larders to be filled. In addition, people in the Western highly developed, highly civilized world are living much longer because of our better health system, and all that kind of thing. They are making bigger demands on our food; and what is even more significant, and a much more serious factor in our situation, is that people in the Eastern world are demanding higher food standards. They are no longer prepared to live on bowls of rice to fill our larders.

That is the situation, and it is nonsense and reckless irresponsibility to boil it down to some balance of payments crisis. It is against this background that the late Government carried on its handling of the food situation. It was no secret that there were difficulties and shortages. All responsible politicians should have known it. They had no need to wait until they had access to Departmental figures and to Treasury figures to discover facts of this sort.

They ought to have known it, as should any responsible person who thought seriously about this problem. Certainly the noble Lord, who guides the party opposite and who is now presumably to get our food supplies—he, above all, should have known it. Yet, he and most others on the opposite side did not scruple to arouse expectation of some lavish increase in our food supplies—more red meat. Just send one or two smart businessmen around the world; they will find it: they will dig it out! That was the kind of suggestion that was made.

Even so responsible a man as the present Foreign Secretary joined in the chorus, to my regret. He chided me for staying that we hoped to hold the meat ration at ls. 5d. I did that to correct the wild and malicious stories put round that it was going down to something quite catastrophically low. He was hinting that I was saying that ls. 5d. was a good ration. A meat ration of ls. 5d. is not a good ration. It is nowhere near an adequate ration for the people of this country, but it is inherent in the meat situation that confronts this country, whatever Government is in power.

Let us look at this meat situation, because it is time we did, quite frankly. The meat situation is really an outstanding example of the thesis I am making this morning, that food will remain a problem long after we have solved our present shortfall in overseas earnings. The Prime Minister told the House on Tuesday that we were 600,000 tons short of reaching the pre-war meat supplies of this country. With his great ingenuity, —how skilful he is in doing these things —he made us all feel as if this was some great startling revelation; as if he had dug out of the archives at Downing Street facts kept back from the people of this country. It is nothing of the kind. It has been known to all, whether in the Government or in the trade, during the past 10 years.

The Prime Minister ought to have known it long since. He did not have to wait to take office to find out this elementary and grave fact. It is a fact; it is there. We have to find the answer to it. I repeatedly pointed out when I was occupying the office of Minister of Food how we were finding it more and more difficult, not merely to increase our meat supplies, but to hold even our present meat supplies. At meetings of such responsible bodies as the Institute of Meat and other experts in the trade, I went over this figure of 600,000 tons. It is the grimmest figure of all facing this country. They themselves recognise it. Frankly, they do not know what the short-term answer is, and many of them do not know what the long-term answer is.

At all my election meetings I gave these facts. At meeting after meeting, housewives asked me: "Why cannot we have more meat?" I told them frankly that we cannot have more meat, and I said that the next Minister of Food, of whatever party, would have to sit down and face the facts of life. And here they are. The Prime Minister seems to have some grievance about allegations that he was a warmonger. I do not know who made them, but I certainly did not. If they were made, that was a less offensive suggestion than the repeated suggestion that meat in abundance would be available, if only some genius from the Tory Party were restored to power. Anyway, we are now down to earth—all of us—and particularly on the other side of the House, and it is high time we were.

There is no quick way out. What is the way? The only way out in the long run, and it is not a quick way out, is the way I tried to take—the way the late Government took, and the way we shall continue to take when we resume office again. It is the way of long-term contracts to open up the undeveloped territories of our Commonwealth. I urge the Minister to press forward with these schemes, and not to be diverted by doctrinaire objections to bulk contracts by his supporters. That is in the long run. In the short run, he should. I hope, still find it possible to hold the 1s. 5d. ration.

The statement that I made about that was made after very full consultation with the officials responsible and other expert officials who advise the Minister, as they advised me, and whose judgment I stand by and accept. We worked out a programme, and if things are as they would assume, taking into account all the normal hazards and failures of meat to arrive, and unless something quite abnormal arises, that meat ration should be held. I hope that my successor will make it his target and purpose to hold it right through, until we reach the beginning of the uprise in our own meat supplies. If it falls short through any unpredictable reason, such as unexpected strikes in New Zealand, and if he tells us the facts about it frankly, I am sure that we on this side will give him fair play. We shall certainly not exploit his difficulties about meat as hon. Members opposite exploited mine when I was in his position.

On the long-term solution of meat, I urge him to complete the examination that I started of the future handling and distribution of meat as soon as possible so that the industry knows where it stands. The final plan must somehow in my judgment marry consumer choice with our guaranteed prices to home and Dominion farmers. This is a technical problem of great complexity, and it is no longer relevant to argue whether the State should or should not intervene. Once the State is doling out public money to farmers at home and abroad, the State must intervene if guarantees are to be valid and productive. Equally, on the practical problem of devising methods of procuring and distributing meat and honouring those guarantees which were given to our primary producers at home and abroad, some action should be taken. They want to know what their position is so as to expand their programme of development. Our aim must be to give the consumer the freedom of choice and flexibility in buying which is essential in any good distribution scheme.

When I was in the Ministry of Food, we completed an exhaustive technical examination of that problem. We did not arrive at any conclusion, and I would press the right hon. and gallant Gentleman to complete that examination and arrive at some conclusion. I think the industry on both sides wants to know where it is. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman will find it difficult to reconcile the interests of the butchers and the farmers, but that is now his exacting job to take on. I urge him to complete that comprehensive survey and announce to the House as soon as possible the Government's long-term programme for handling this problem, because, in the end, it is going to be a material factor in improv- ing the supplies of meat at home and abroad.

Now I want to refer to the general cuts in food proposed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. May I say that I, personally, thought the Chancellor's statement was very brave and courageous, and we on this side, I feel sure without dissent, would want to congratulate him on the realism with which he faced his critical problem.

I must say I am not at all sure that he has done right to make food the first and most stringent of his cuts. For my part—and I am really putting the view that I put when in office and which all Food Ministers must put to all Chancellors—I would have preferred to see cuts in tobacco and petrol imports first. We would have preferred smaller imports of foreign wines and spirits, and a cut in the imports of films. It seems to me quite unthinkable that at this time we should have harassed the housewife still further while leaving the luxury of petrol for pleasure driving and tobacco completely untouched.

It is no good arguing that we could not get much from it. I think we could have got a good deal from it, but it all depends on how courageous one is in fixing the cuts. But whether one is so or not, it would have had a beneficial psychological effect on the housewife if she had seen that, as well as food cuts, there were cuts in other fields as well. I think it is a pity that the Chancellor did not feel it necessary and possible at this time to make cuts in that field. No doubt the Minister has urged this. I would press him to go on doing so, and so long as he does he will find strong support from this side of the House.

As to the cuts themslves, there can be no objection to the cutting down of such luxuries as boiled ham and other things. I do not want to make comments of a partisan nature on this and follow the right hon. and gallant Gentleman into the field in which he found himself, but we kept these things going as long as possible, though they caused a good deal of offence to our own supporters on this side of the House. But we kept them going in the belief that ham at 10s. a pound added variety to our diet and was a useful supplement to the ration, providing a meal for people who wanted to have something extra. Therefore we kept them on.

I resisted pressure to stop them on the ground that it involved the setting up of an expensive machine to administer control. I chose, where possible, to let the private trade get on with it. It is the other side which has stopped the private trade getting on with it. To put it mildly —I do not want to make any great party point about it—it is a trifle odd that a Conservative administration, pledged to economy in Departmental administration and to handing over more trade to private firms, should reverse that course, and should now be setting up another annex to the Ministry of Food with more civil servants, more forms and more controls to take away from private trade certain liberties and freedoms which it has. It is one of the things that the historians will speculate about and give judgment on.

There is one point I wish to make because it is of such importance. Has the Minister considered the effect these cuts will have on the prices of other uncontrolled foods? I refer most particularly to fish, fruit, vegetables and other things. It is now quite certain that in these circumstances we shall need the Prime Minister's "ladder" to reach the prices of some of these commodities before the winter is out. Certainly the fish merchant did pretty well earlier in the year when food was more available.

In this situation I wonder what they are going to do. My attitude to controls of perishable foods is well-known. I do not think they are good instruments for handling perishable goods, but it is quite clear that we could not have entered another winter with a grave increase in fish prices without taking some defensive action to protect the housewife. In July, on the authority of the then Cabinet, my Department arranged to set up a piece of machinery, which was a reserved scheme for fish controls. We wanted to make it flexible and effective, and to avoid some of the disadvantages of price control of this very delicate commodity. We wanted to relate it to the long-term plans of the White Fish Authority and generally to work out constructive means of control. That was the instruction that went out.

I understand that that organisation has been set up, and I urge the Minister to keep it in existence so as to be ready to bring it into effective service immediately any serious increase in fish prices takes place. I would also ask him to find other means to protect the housewife against the inevitable exploitation of these perishable foods, which will take place right across the country. I urge him too to go ahead with the plans we were getting ready for dealing with fruit and vegetables. He will find in that field that constructive work has been done, which will be acceptable to the country and will give the housewife the assurance to which she is even more entitled today than she was before.

The Minister, as I expected, has not been able to say where the cuts will fall on rationed food. There can be no complaint about that, and I should like to congratulate him on not having rushed into this field and arrive at a decision which might not be quite a wise decision. I suppose it is still not possible at least to protect these foods from any cuts. It may be too much to hope for that, but I want to stress that the Minister should remember the long-term consequences of these cuts, particularly on our rationed food. Those consequences will be much more serious than their immediate effect on our larders, serious as that will be. They will have a most serious long-term effect on our sources of supply in the coming year.

If we cut now our purchases of sugar, bacon, cheese, fats and coarse grains, which are the only fields where any cuts in rationed foods can be made, to deal with this situation, it will inevitably lead to a cutting down of production overseas. It will, for example. lead to a destruction of herds, which is the kind of thing that normally happens when markets disappear. That is a very serious contingency for any Ministry of Food. In short, even if we wanted and were able to buy again in two or three years time we may find that the food is not there.

Has that been weighed and considered? It is a most serious factor in this situation, and I would urge the Minister to raise this matter with the Chancellor of the Exchequer before any final decisions are taken, and that when they are taken at least account will be taken of that. We do not want to impose cuts likely to have the long-term consequences which I have mentioned.

At this time I think we should be straining every nerve to encourage the primary producers to go ahead with development. We want to expand food supplies overseas and give the producers the certainty of their market, encouraging them to invest their capital, energy and labour in developing their own areas. These cuts in what has always been regarded as their main food market will have a most disastrous effect on their confidence in the future. I hope that this point will be taken into account.

If there must be cuts in consumption, which I concede, could we not maintain our purchases for stockpiling? I do not mean of things like bacon, cheese and fat. We cannot store them, but we can store sugar and coarse grains. Why stop buying sugar and coarse grains? Let us bring them into the country. They are notional dollars. They are good credit, and they stand there on our side. They are just as much a buttress of our credit as any paper dollars in the Bank of England. They would not need to be consumed.

Why not buy them and bring them in? They would be a great source of strength to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in maintaining our credit. I strongly urge the Minister of Food to press on at leas: with the continued stockpiling of sugar, coarse grains and other appropriate commodities. Let him go on spending the money and putting the goods in store, not using them for current consumption. He can make the adjustments in consumption which are thought proper at the time.

If there must be cuts, I urge the right hon. and gallant Gentleman to search the manufacturing field before he touches the housewife. What about sugar for brewing and distilling?