The right hon. Member for Bradford, Central (Mr. Webb) has quite rightly indicated that this debate is one of the most important that this Committee could possible have. He referred to the fact that there was more disquiet and more criticism at present and went on to say that any Minister of Food was bound to be the target.
I think he will agree with me that a Minister of Food is the target for a good many things for which he would not have been a target in ordinary times. Whatever goes wrong, even the weather, the Minister of Food is criticised in some way or other. Many things which in the ordinary course of events are taken as normal are, because of the very nature of the organisation, put down to the Ministry itself.
The right hon. Gentleman raised many points with which I hope I shall be able to deal in due course. If I miss anything, I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to deal with it afterwards. My first purpose today, as I think the Committee would wish, is to give a survey of the position as I see it.
Since the last debate on the subject in the House, there has been a growing appreciation throughout the country of the nature and gravity of the economic crisis with which we are faced. The Economic Survey for 1952 has been published and makes clear the alarming fall in our financial reserves which has taken place since the middle of last year. Under the direction of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, remedial measures have now been formulated and announced.
Substantial cuts in our imports had to be made last November, almost as soon as this Government took office. This step had, unfortunately, to be reinforced by a further cut in January. On both occasions the blow fell inevitably on food because of the large proportion of our imports which food represents. Subsequently, in his Budget, the Chancellor has consolidated these import restrictions and introduced further financial and economic measures. These are designed to bring back a greater sense of reality into the economic life of the country, and to achieve national security and solvency.
There is no doubt that if the Government had not taken speedy action in November, and later in January, imports, including food imports, would have cut themselves and there would have been widespread want and unemployment.
Although these first steps have been taken, it is idle to pretend that we are out of the wood. As the Prime Minister has said,
"It will take all our national strength to avoid the downhill slide.
But the effect of these drastic remedies is just beginning to be felt.
My task today is to give the Committee an estimate of what our situation will be in the coming months as far as food is concerned. The right hon. Member for Bradford, Central, asked for a vigorous food policy. I very much hope that we shall at least be more vigorous than our predecessors have been in the matter of food, because when they left office after six years the level of the food ration was roughly the same as when they came in. If that is vigour, I shall hope to try something else.