This Supplementary Estimate of £10 million is, of course, brought forward in connection with the Agreement with the Argentine, which was signed by Her Majesty's Ambassador at Buenos Aires on 31st December. As the House will be aware, Article 12 of this Agreement provides that credit facilities not exceeding £20 million should be available until 30th June, 1954. These facilities, are, of course, part of the general Agreement, and I understand that it would meet the convenience of the Committee if you, Sir Charles, were able to indicate that on the discussion of this Supplementary Estimate it would be in order to discuss the whole of the Agreement.
I am obliged, Sir Charles. Hon. Members will appreciate that this is an Agreement which is most conveniently discussed as a whole, and your Ruling, as I understand it, Sir Charles, enables us to do so. I would stress that the Agreement ought to be looked upon as a whole.
Perhaps I might also be allowed to make one other general comment. Obviously when two independent sets of people sit down to a negotiation, the ultimate result of that negotiation is apt to embody something different from the precise wishes which either of them had when they began the negotiation. I am sure the hon. Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. J. Edwards), with his experience of that type of thing, would not dissent from that view. Of course, there is the familiar practice of give and take, and a satisfactory agreement, in particular an agreement that is going to last, can only be arrived at, generally speaking, in that sort of way.
Therefore, I do not put this Agreement forward as being something which represents 100 per cent. of what the United Kingdom negotiators would have liked to achieve, any more than I put it forward as being 100 per cent. of what the Argentine negotiators would have desired to achieve. Any agreement, as any hon. Member with practical experience of these matters must know, is arrived at as a result of mutual concessions. It was the result of negotiations which, while not quite so prolonged as those which produced its predecessor, were none the less not unduly curtailed. They began in April of last year and concluded with the signature of the Agreement on 31st December last year.
On their timing, if any question arises as to that, I think it is reasonable to point out that we started negotiations while deliveries under the 1951 Protocol were still going on, that there was an unhappy interruption in the negotiations owing to the death of Senora Peron, and changes in Argentine administration. The negotiations can, therefore, I suggest, be described as neither unduly dilatory nor unduly rushed.
I should like to take the opportunity of expressing the thanks of the Government, and I have no doubt of a good many people outside, to Her Majesty's Ambassador at Buenos Aires, Sir Henry Mack, for the patience, pertinacity and clarity of mind which he showed during these negotiations, as also to the very able officials sent from this country to assist him in that very hard job of work.
May I deal separately and specifically with a number of the more important aspects of this Agreement? I would stress once again that I do not ask the Committee to look at any one of them in complete isolation, since they are all part and parcel of a general Agreement which I suggest should be judged as a complete whole.
The most conspicuous feature of the Agreement is the provision with respect to the purchase of meat. That is embodied in Articles 2 to 5 inclusive of the Protocol which, as hon. Members will recall, was issued as a White Paper. I will not go in any great detail into that aspect of the Agreement, as my right hon. and gallant Friend the Minister of Food, if he has the good fortune to catch your eye, Sir Charles, will seek to speak at a later stage of this debate.
Perhaps, in order that what I may describe—I hope without undue ineloquence—as the meat aspect of the matter can be looked at as part of the general picture, I may be allowed to say a little first of all on that topic. The Agreement, as hon. Members will be aware, provides for obtaining 238,000 tons of carcass meat and offals as compared with 200,000 tons under the previous Agreement. Inside the total of 238,000 tons, the quantity of beef—I think hon. Members will be inclined to the view that beef is a particularly important part of the meat which we desire to obtain from the Argentine—is appreciably larger than under the previous Agreement, being 144,000 tons under this Agreement as compared with 90,500 tons under its predecessor. Under this Agreement also we take a certain amount of Argentine lamb but not Argentine mutton.
The price, of course, is higher than under the last Agreement. So also is the price we have had to pay to other suppliers. It is always difficult in a negotiation of this sort to say more or to form a clear view as to whether the price is the best, from whichever party's point of view, that could be obtained. [Laughter.] If hon. Members had a little experience of negotiation, they would perhaps appreciate that in a negotiation of this sort, that is apt to take place. No doubt, hon. Members will desire to look further into this aspect. My right hon. and gallant Friend will be very glad to deal with that aspect of the matter when he comes to reply to the debate.
Perhaps I may be allowed to point out that the price for what apparently is technically described as chiller beef at £161 a ton is a bit nearer our opening bid than it was to the Argentine's. That is an aspect of the matter on which it may be that hon. Members may wish to deploy their arguments, and with which my right hon. and gallant Friend will be happy to deal when he comes to reply. This 238,000 tons of carcass meat and offals provides a very valuable addition to the supplies which we shall get from other sources, notably our own farmers, and from Australia and New Zealand.
This year, for the first time since the war, home production of meat will be almost up to the pre-war level. We hope to get 1,020,000 tons. We hope to get 140,000 tons from Australia, which is an improvement on recent years, and 360,000 tons, which is a record, from New Zealand. All this will mean that our total supplies should be something over 1,800,000 tons this year as compared with 1,555,000 tons in 1952. This figure of 1,800,000 tons is still some way below the pre-war average figure, but it is a substantial step towards it.
Perhaps I may say a word about the credit provisions, which is the matter to which this Supplementary Estimate specifically relates. They are embodied in Article 12 of the Protocol, and the total amount provided by the Agreement is the same as that under the Agreement of 1951—that is to say, £20 million. It is in the form of what is called a revolving credit; that is, the total of £20 million cannot be exceeded at any one time but, on the other hand, the amount can be turned over from time to time. We have inserted £10 million in this Supplementary Estimate, which relates only to the remaining part of the present financial year, on the grounds that that is a figure far above what may conceivably be required in that period.
It is interesting to recall, as the hon. Member for Brighouse and Spenborough will no doubt recall, that the £20 million provided for under the 1951 Agreement was never drawn upon at all. The Argentine, however, attached considerable importance to the inclusion of this provision in this Agreement. I cannot say to what extent they will find it necessary or desirable to make use of it. That must obviously depend upon their general economic position and the effect of this position upon their balance of payments in the coming months.
Their position, I am glad to say, does appear to be appreciably improving. As the Committee is aware, the Argentine suffered most severely from drought in the last two or three years, but this winter's crop looks like being generally very much better, and I understand that the Argentine sterling position has improved even since the signature of the Protocol.
All that, of course, bears upon the question of the extent to which the Argentine may find it necessary to make use of this credit; but it is, of course, part of the Agreement, and we have every intention of honouring it if we are called upon to do so. The provision in Article 12 reproduces the substance of the provision of the Agreement of 1951 with respect to the level of the Argentine balances.
Some criticism has appeared in the Press of the fact that the Agreement does not contain references to remittances of profits, dividends and royalties. I can tell the Committee that we pressed the Argentine very hard upon this, but they took the line that the succession of bad harvests which they have had up to the present one adversely affected their reserves of sterling, and that it was impossible for them to enter into any commitments in 1953.
They stated that they did not want to promise what they might not be able to carry out. They did assure us, however, that they will continue to authorise the transfer of railway pensions and were prepared to consider the possibility of resuming other financial remittances in 1954 if the exchange situation permitted them to do so.
It is disappointing that we have not been able to do better in this respect. The only, possibly small, consolation we have is that the sums awaiting remittance appear to be very much smaller than the arrears which had accumulated at the time of the 1951 protocol. I am sure that I express the view of all hon. Members in saying that we very much hope that the Argentine may be able to see its way to proceed with these remittances before too long. We did obtain assurances which will carry one stage further the long standing problem of the Argentine public utilities. A Committee is to be appointed before the 31st of the present month to examine these problems, together with representatives of the interests concerned, and to report within six months.
In Article 10 of the protocol we undertake, as the Committee is aware, to make available certain supplies of oil, tinplate and coal. These quantities, except in the case of coal, are very nearly the same as those under the Agreement of 1951. In the case of coal the improved stock position has enabled us to increase the total from 500,000 to 800,000 tons.
Another important provision relates—and it is set out in Article 8—to what are now described, in the somewhat crude jargon of the day, as less-essential imports. The Argentine undertakes to take from this country—and here we have, I am glad to say, a firm, published undertaking, which is an advance from the position that could be achieved in 1951—£3 million worth of this type of imports, in respect of which the Argentine Government undertake to see that licences are issued.
Would the hon. Gentleman tell the Committee what is to be understood by the term "manufactured goods"? I know that the precise details are to be settled by the Mixed Consultative Committee, but I should like to know what range of goods were in mind when this Article was drafted.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, this list is now being discussed by the Mixed Consultative Committee. Views are being expressed as to categories. I do not think it would be very helpful at the moment if I went beyond the published words of the protocol, which are, I think, as far as I can take the matter at this moment.
Are we just talking about textile goods and the like, or are we talking about motor cars and a whole range of goods which, in a certain sense, are "manufactured goods"?
We are not, of course, talking about articles specifically covered in the Agreement—tinplate, oil and coal. We are talking about—I use deliberately and with some care the words of the Agreement—"manufactured goods." We shall have our views as to suitable candidates for the list. So, no doubt, will the Argentine. These matters are being worked on at present. I really do not think it would be very helpful if I were to mention some particular example, to which, it may then be suggested, we attach great importance, as that could very well raise a suggestion that we do not attach importance to some others. I must, I think, leave the matter where it is, for reasons that I am sure the hon. Gentleman understands.
The Agreement contemplates that the total value of sterling trade which may be expected to develop during the year may be of the order of £167 million. That is Article 7. This is, again to use the words of the Agreement itself, a "calculation." It is in no sense a firm undertaking. It is, however, I think, a very helpful indication of the sort of scale of trade which those responsible in the Argentine have in mind, and it is perhaps an indication of the general atmosphere of co-operation and good will, to which this Agreement, I believe, has in some degree contributed.
I think those are the main items of the Agreement. The Agreement, from a Parliamentary sense, of course, turns on this Supplementary Estimate. Therefore, in asking the Committee to approve it, I am at the same time asking it to enable this Agreement to be fully implemented, in the hope that it will secure for this country a substantial amount of valuable foodstuffs, which will not be unwelcome, and equally, as the preamble to the Agreement itself indicates, that it will help to bring in a new era in Anglo-Argentine economic relations which, with good will and good sense on both sides, may be of benefit to the peoples of both countries.
It would be very easy for me to act rather mischievously on this occasion and to say things that certainly would not be in the interests of the Government, and, perhaps, would not be in the interests of the country; but I want to declare at once that it is not our desire to act mischievously about this matter in any way; nor do we seek to embarrass the Government about this Agreement, except in so far as the facts in themselves are embarrassing, as we review them in the course of the debate.
I say that because I think we are all learning that not the least of the crippling liabilities of a Government they impose upon themselves by irresponsible, shortsighted action when they are in Opposition. This Agreement is, I think, a vivid example of that. I want to say at once that I agree with the Financial Secretary that it should be examined as a whole. It stands or falls together, and we should like to look at it from that comprehensive point of view.
I recall that, when the late Chancellor of the Exchequer and I announced our Agreement, the Foreign Secretary said of that Agreement that it
… does seem to put some pretty heavy additional obligations upon this country."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th April, 1951; Vol. 487, c. 218.]
That was his view about our arrangement. I wonder what is his view, as Foreign Secretary, of this particular Agreement, in the light of the facts. We say that some part—not all, of course, but a large part—of the failure to secure a better Agreement is due directly to the attitude of the opposite side when we had the responsibility.
The Financial Secretary's speech today was very different from the speeches I have heard him deliver from this side of the Chamber on this subject. He was bland, almost benign, and quite amiable, and he looked quite different from what he did when I was watching him when he was on the Opposition side of the Committee. It is easy to develop that kind of argument, and to quote past speeches of the hon. Gentleman, and the past speeches of other hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite, but that will not help us to get anywhere at all, and we do not want to encourage the Argentine to go ahead with their demands.
If the Government, when in Opposition, had not encouraged the Argentine to go ahead with their demands when we were faced with even more complex negotiations, these negotiations would have started from a position of much greater strength, and part of the price this Government have had to pay to the Argentine arises directly from the attitude they adopted when we were negotiating. If, at that time, they had supported us and enabled us to resist a little longer and to keep the price we settled then down at a lower level, they would have started negotiating from a position of greater strength.
We do not want to emulate them in that course, because what matters in the end, not only in the short-run but in the long-run, are the interests of the country, but let me give as an example of our rectitude in this matter just one fact. I see the Secretary for Overseas Trade is here, and he will remember that by arrangement with Mr. Speaker I had proposed to raise this question of the Agreement on the day we adjourned for the Christmas Recess, but because it was pointed out to me that it would be difficult to do so when the negotiations were going ahead I agreed at once not to press the matter because it would have been embarrassing.
I wish the noble Lord responsible for the overall direction of our food policy—whose health, by the way, we are all glad to hear is improving—had acted equally responsibly at the time when we found ourselves at a most critical stage of our negotiations. At that time, the Committee will recall, a debate took place in another place which had a most adverse effect on those negotiations, and a most crippling and limiting effect on our spokesmen out there at that time. It would have been better if our negotiations had been free from that time of political disability.
While wishing to avoid that kind of rash and reckless partisanship, it is our duty to express our view, and our view is that by any test this is an unsatisfactory Agreement. That is not merely my own view. It is not merely the view of those on these benches. Anybody who studies the responsible Press will have seen that the Agreement was viewed with varying degrees of disquiet. I exclude the irresponsible Press, which sees sunshine in every little concession and never weighs the cost of that concession.
The responsible Press, the technical Press, the trade Press and the economic Press, have, in varying degrees, expressed widespread disquiet and alarm about the nature of this Agreement, the tendency of the Agreement and the failure to get better terms. Even that blacklisted word which I was chastised for using has appeared in certain organs since this Agreement was published.
As it is better for me to quote from my own constituency, I wish to quote
from the "Telegraph and Argus," an excellent paper which comes from Bradford, and which, on the whole, tends to support this Government. On Thursday, 22nd January, it had this headline:
Disgust In West Riding Over Argentine Pact
and went on to use words like this:
Criticism of the Government for failing to make adequate provision for wool textile exports to the Argentine is mounting in the West Riding. The annoyance registered when the preliminary details of the pact were announced has been increased since Mr. Butler's latest statement
Mr. Ernest Overton, who is chairman and joint managing director of Holroyd Bros. Ltd. of Huddersfield, a very experienced and responsible fine worsted manufacturing firm, said that he "nearly passed out" when he read the statement of the Chancellor in the House last week. This is not the view of a reckless, irresponsible Member of the Labour Opposition, but the view of a responsible business man. Mr. Overton went on to say:
I think it is about time we kicked out the lot.
I am being careful not to use our own language, as was done by hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite when they were in Opposition. I am quoting from responsible, independent and, presumably, objective sources of opinion.
Mr. Overton added that it was disgusting that the Government had been unable to make a better Agreement. Another Huddersfield manufacturer —they do a lot of talking in Huddersfield—commented:
It used to be one of our best markets, and we are terribly disappointed that nothing has been arranged to open it up again.
That is one example of a wide range of some strident, critical views which express some of the anxiety and alarm that has been shown about this Agreement.
I wish now to examine the Agreement in rather broad detail, and to raise points that we should like considered, and where questions arise perhaps answers could be given later in the debate. First, the question of meat. I think the whole House will be glad that we have got a little more meat. It is wrong for any party in the Committee to feel happy when any Government is embarrassed by a shortage of meat. The meat situation is a critical one for this country. It will be a critical one for a very long period of time, and any improvement, however small, is to be welcomed. Therefore, we are glad that we have got another 30,000 tons of meat from the Argentine.
Now, what about the price? We must measure the price against the background. In June, 1949, we signed an Agreement under which we got meat at an average price of £97 a ton. Devaluation followed that, the Korean war started, and, obviously, we had to pay more when we entered into the next Agreement. However, we finally got a settlement at an average price of £128 10s. with specified quotas of the different categories of meat, thanks to the excellent negotiations of my hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. J. Edwards). This average is somewhere in the region of £165. I am not a mathematician, and perhaps I might be corrected, but I make that an increase over 1949 of some 75 per cent. That is a considerable increase, and an increase which is adding to the burdens of the housewives of this country.
It was precisely because, when we were responsible, looking ahead to this year, we were aware of the general world meat situation that this country would have to face this year, whoever was responsible for Government, that, despite the political difficulty, we decided to resist to try to get the best possible bargain we could at that time. Obviously, on this occasion more had to be paid, but I must say that I am surprised that the amount that has been paid is as high as it is.
I should have thought it would have been possible, difficult as the situation is for us, to have got a fairer price, a lower price. Admittedly, it must be a higher price than we had to pay, but I should have thought it would have been possible to have got a price not so acutely stepped up as this one obviously has been. We could apply to this price all the epithets and condemnation used by our critics about our price, but I do not want to do that. The price is there. It speaks for itself. It will be just another factor in that inflation of living costs which will cause the Government very serious difficulty in the next few months.
The real criticism of this Agreement must lie elsewhere. It lies in the arrangements which we have made in return for this lavish concession of price. I would just say this about meat, before leaving that side of it. It is lamentable that the authority and negotiating strength of any Government of Britain should be vitiated by fear about supplies and the price of meat. Why cannot all of us, whatever our responsibility, in all parties in this country, have the moral courage consistently to say to our people, "It really is not good enough to cripple ourselves and denigrate ourselves for another pennyworth of meat"?
I also make these two further points about meat. It is surely essential now, in the light of this Agreement, apart from all the other facts which have been there for some time, to launch a forward, imaginative policy to develop our own resources both here and in the Commonwealth, so that we can become gradually freer and ultimately completely free from this recurring situation of reliance upon the Argentine.
Further, I think it is quite wrong to assume that the Argentine is impregnable in this matter of meat. It is true that the situation from their point of view is more favourable than before. They can sell meat in markets which were not hitherto available to them. There is a greater home consumption of meat—their own demand is growing—and factors of that kind are there. But it is not true to say that they are impregnable. They do and must rely for the general balance of their economy on the traditional market in this country, and that factor is very strongly in our favour.
I now turn to some considerations about the other side of the Agreement, which has, I think, raised anxiety for a number of reasons. We have been able, as the Financial Secretary has said, to increase our most vital exports—oil, coal and tinplate—but we have only been able to arrange for the export of some £3 million worth of consumption goods, or, as the Agreement calls them, manufactured goods. This £3 million is, I think, an almost ludicrous figure. I hope we can have a thorough explanation of the nature of the arrangements that are contemplated. I realise the difficulty of the Minister in giving us the full details, but surely the Board of Trade has some prospect in mind. Certainly, the Chancellor of the Exchequer did indicate—and this led to criticism from the wool textile part of the country—that a large part of it would, in fact, be used in the cotton textile trade.
I do not think that my right hon. Friend, who was replying to a supplementary question, said quite that. He intimated that there were a number of articles which, as I have said today, are under discussion with the Mixed Consultative Committee.
I can only say that he did give a strong hint that it was going to Lancashire—and that conclusion has been widely drawn in the West Riding, and there is some apprehension about it.
The point that we must make is this: wool textiles alone, on a reliable estimate that I have been given and which I have no reason to doubt, at pre-war values, accounted for some £10 million worth of trade per annum, long before the war, in the Argentine. Wool textiles are merely to have some unknown part of this ludicrously small figure of £3 million. Surely it ought to have been possible to have got a better agreement than that.
Then, what about tinplate? The hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) will surely be concerned about this. I do not think that he is here at the moment, but he has constantly expressed, quite rightly, the anxiety of his constituents who are engaged in the fruit and vegetable markets at their inability to sell their crops because of the large amount of tinplate that was going out of this country. We would like to know how far the agreement about tinplate will have an adverse effect on the vegetable and fruit canning industry in the country at this time. I think it is important that such information as can be made available should be given, because their there is some anxiety about that in many quarters.
Of course, we admit that some part of the tinplate must be sent to pack that quantity of canned meat which we get from the Argentine, and there can be no complaint about that. We are talking about the free tinplate which is used for national commercial purposes. On the question of canned meat, can any general figure be given of the position which we are now in about our stocks of canned meat and what improvements are now likely to take place?
Canned meat seems to have disappeared completely. It has become a great source of mystery. Some people always thought that it was a mystery as an edible commodity, but canned meat is a very valuable supplementary food, and housewives like it. In summer it can be used in preparing a light meal. Is it possible for the Minister of Food to tell the Committee whether, as a result of this arrangement, he can make available, at some time in the summer, some supplies of canned meat, which, I am sure, the housewife would like to have?
I want to return to the question of remittances. I deplore the rather casual way in which the Financial Secretary dismissed that matter. There is acute anxiety and disappointment on this question in all sorts of quarters, expressed by quite responsible Members of the party opposite, and quite rightly so. This is a running, grievous sore—it never seems to get better; it seems to get worse—and, so far as we can judge, this arrangement is certainly no better than the one which we were able to make, and is conceivably a worse arrangement. In any event, we deplore the way in which the Financial Secretary seemed to regard it —as something of very small consequence. We think that it is a matter of very serious consequence to very important sections of our community, and we must press for more information on this matter before the debate is over.
I would remind the right hon. Gentleman that I went out of my way to say that we had pressed very hard on this matter and to express my regret that we had not been successful. In the light of that, it is quite wrong to say that I treated this matter lightly; I did not and I do not.
I can only assure the hon. Gentleman that that was the impression he left on my mind. It may be that the strength he exerted was not strong enough; I do not know. But I feel—and I cannot withdraw from it —that his attitude was rather casual about it.
We say generally that this Agreement is far short of the expectations aroused by the statements made by hon. Members opposite when they saw our efforts to safeguard our interests merely as a means, as it was then to them, of causing us political embarrassment. At that time, by implication and, in many cases, explicitly, they aroused expectations that their more skilful, businesslike, effective and efficient handling of this kind of concern would lead to improvements and concessions. Not one of these expectations has been realised. We have only, as a result of this long, tedious process of negotiation, an Agreement that is in no way nearly as good, on any ground at all, as the one which we were able to make when we were in office.
At no stage were they caused difficulty by us throughout these negotiations. We have acted responsibly and quietly and refrained from asking Questions or pressing the matter in any way. All the difficulties with which they have been confronted in these negotiations have arisen from their own past behaviour, and we hope that they have learned some lesson there, and that they will take that lesson into account when they resume their normal functions on this side of the Committee in due course.
Frankly, our concern is with the feeding of the people and not with any specious device to secure power. Our policy is to try to improve the diet of our people and, with the best use of our resources and of our position in the world, to give our people better food, more food at prices which they can afford, and food which is more fairly shared among the population than is now the case.
It is not a good thing for this nation to be so dependent, as it clearly is upon the Argentine or upon any other country outside our own great British family of nations. The National Farmers' Union speeches yesterday show where the root causes lie, and I hope—indeed, I know—the Government will have taken very serious account of them. The Government have provided no long-term constructive policy for improving the use of our own land at home or the development of the skills and techniques of our associate farmers in the Commonwealth. The Government have chosen rather to engage in a reckless process of demolition of all the machinery for fair shares for producers and consumers which the Labour Government created.
We have seen in the case of eggs and other commodities that the Government are destroying the balance which is necessary to maintain guaranteed prices and fair shares throughout the whole community. The price we are paying for that kind of reckless policy is seen in this Agreement, which is but one of many similar burdens which the country must shoulder as a result of the incoherent, fumbling attitude of the Government.
Since I was not in the previous Parliament, it is perhaps easier for me to deal with this Agreement than it is for some others. My criticism of it is that it is so similar to the two previous Agreements, particularly in the lax method of its drafting. It does not seem to me that it lies in the mouth of the Opposition to criticise it. Insofar as it is different it certainly moves a little way along the line of imposing some sort of obligations upon those with whom we are dealing as well as upon ourselves.
My hon. Friend the Financial Secretary said that under Article 8 of the present Agreement there was now a firm undertaking, or at least a firm publication of intention, on the part of the Argentine Government to import manufactured goods up to a total of £3 million. I wonder to what extent that could, even in the hazy realms of international law, be regarded as any sort of obligation that could be enforced. It has to be decided by the Mixed Consultative Committee, a body which figures in all these Agreements but whose exact composition is not set out in any of the Agreements.
I shall be glad if my right hon. and gallant Friend will tell us what happens when the Mixed Consultative Committee gets so mixed that it cannot agree at all. Is there any provision for arbitration? Is there any independent chairman? Or is it simply an agreement to make an agreement, which, as we all know, is no agreement at all? Article 11, dealing with remittances, on which the Argentine Government have been in default, does not even have that limited amount of sanction of applying to it the Mixed Consultative Committee.
We have had experience of the two previous Agreements and we know to what extent they have been honoured. It is, therefore, very surprising to find precisely the same form of words used here in relation to default on shipments by the Argentine exporters. Article 4 of the present Agreement says that the contracting Governments will conclude before 31st January, 1953, a contract for the supply to the United Kingdom of carcase meat, etc., and it goes on to state what the contract shall include and paragraph (c) is a precise repetition of words used in both previous Agreements which do not seem to have been very effective in keeping the shipments up to time, up to date and in full supply.
The provision begins with the words:
whatever that may be—
to ensure the compensation of the party which suffers any loss in respect of charges for dead freight, demurrage or storage arising from failure to deliver f.o.b. or to ship the quantities agreed as in (b) of this Article.
The words "concrete measures" appeared in Article 6 of the 1951 Agreement and in Annex A to the 1949 Agreement but in those cases the measures did not prove to be concrete. I wonder whether my right hon. and gallant Friend thinks it will be any better this time since precisely the same words are used. What were the "concrete measures" provided in the contract which was to have been formed under the 1949 Agreement, and if they did not prove satisfactory, does my right hon. and gallant Friend believe that the form of contract used this time will make them a great deal more concrete?
This is not exactly a debating point on drafting because in the debate, at which I was not present, which the hon. Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. J. Edwards) initiated after negotiating his Agreement, he explained that owing to the drafting of the previous Agreement we should have to give away £10,500,000 as the result of devaluation of sterling. He said that the Agreement had been drafted so loosely that his legal advisers assured him that they could not be certain whether they had a good legal case on that point or not. So this drafting point has already hit the country hard, and from our experience of the misdeeds of the Opposition when they were in power, I am wondering whether we have really learnt a lesson in view of the fact that the present Agreement contains repetitions from the previous Agreements.
Throughout this Agreement one finds a sort of unwillingness on the part of Her Majesty's Government, and His late Majesty's Government previously, to mention the question of sanctions when it comes to the delivery of meat. The hon. Member for Brighouse and Spenborough explained that away in his speech in July, 1951, by saying that it was important to improve the atmosphere and climate of opinion, and he indicated that to do that one always had to give away something. Whenever one hears the Foreign Office saying that it is very important to get the climate of opinion or the atmosphere right one knows it is about to give away some hard-won British asset.
I hope that we shall not have that form of words used on this occasion. It is the most menacing form of words one could hear. It does not improve the climate of opinion to say to the man with whom one is negotiating, "No sanctions will be put on you, but sanctions will be put upon us if we fail in our obligations." It is not offensive to a country to say, "We trust you but, at the same time, we want sanctions against you if you fail." If one plays cards with someone, one cuts the cards before one deals even though one trusts the other person completely; it is the normal thing to do. It would not be offensive to include in these contracts something a little stronger than we have had.
I hope that my right hon. and gallant Friend will assure us that we have learnt our lessons from the bitter experiences of the two previous Agreements and that we have now something a good deal tighter on which we can rely. If so, that is worth the increased price which we have to pay, because it is better to be sure of something and pay more for it than to think one has a bargain and then find that one has nothing.
We are having such a nice, quiet debate that for a moment I thought I was in one of the courts in the Chancery Division. I did not think we should be so quiet when discussing meat. I congratulate the Financial Secretary—he knows that we all know that he has a very bad case—upon expressing himself with appropriate modesty and moderation. Nevertheless, he has a bad case.
I do not want to embarrass anybody, and, indeed, nothing that I say could embarrass the Government because the Government are already far too embarrassed by what they said in their other capacity when they were the Opposition. They must have been in a very difficult position in negotiating with the Argentinians. I am very glad that Lord Woolton has recovered but he, too, must have made those negotiations far more difficult by what he said during the General Election because the Argentine Government know how heavily committed are the present Government to get meat at any price. They have got some meat, and they have got it at a high price.
When I say that this is a bad Agreement I speak relatively. It is a bad Agreement compared with the preceding one. The circumstances were much more difficult then than they were at the time of this Agreement. The Argentinians had an excellent wheat crop in 1951, which put them in a stronger position As we all know, world food prices were soaring then and the financial position of the Argentine was better than during these negotiations.
But the first thing that strikes one about this Agreement is its background. We cannot divorce it from its background of the discussions we had on the earlier agreement. I remember the intervention of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food in one of our discussions. He said:
The first function of the Minister of Food is to provide all the necessary food to sustain the health of the people."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th February, 1951; Vol. 483, c. 2012.]
All he has done so far is to reduce practically every ration—I am speaking of the year as a whole. If the Minister cares to deal with that point I shall be obliged.
But the remarkable thing about this Agreement is seen when we turn to the page giving the signatories. The only signatory on our behalf is that of our Ambassador. It is a remarkable thing that the present Government should have negotiated an Agreement such as this when the only signatory is Her Majesty's Ambassador. In addition, as far as I am aware—and the Financial Secretary has not enlightened us on this point—there has been no suggestion of any trade mission having gone out there to advise or assist the Ambassador. No businessmen went out there, "combing" for increased meat supplies. There were no experts. There was just Her Majesty's Ambassador, apparently advised and assisted by some admirable civil servants. As far as I know—and I shall be corrected by the Minister if I am wrong—no very high-powered civil servants were out there. It was all in the hands of Her Majesty's Ambassador.
This is remarkable, because the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food must have some influence and he has committed himself on this subject. I know he is not here today because he would be particularly embarrassed if I spoke about it. I do not blame him for avoiding embarrassment, because when there is any question of that he is apt to intervene too much and to prolong the discussion. But in October, 1951, he said that the State machine was a slow, clumsy, expensive affair in the business of buying. He is not the only one who has said that. During one debate on meat supplies the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that the system of State trading had entirely outlived such usefulness as it ever had.
In the debate we had on the last Agreement the Conservative Party made their position abundantly clear. The bon. Member for Stafford and Stone (Mr. H. Fraser) said:
When we have rid the country of this Government, we will he able to send out a proper trading mission to negotiate a wide agreement for trade between our two countries.
It is surely relevant to inquire why this has not been done. The hon. Member who is now Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of National Insurance wound up a debate for the Conservative Opposition by saying that Senor Derisi had told the British that the Argentinians
were prepared to abandon the bulk selling system immediately and to allow our meat to go into private trade provided Britain re-opened Smithfield. He added:
That is what we believe should be done in this situation."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th July, 1951; Vol. 489, c. 2536–2558.]
He expressly made the point that the meat negotiations must be divorced from the other negotiations.
This has not been done, but we have had no explanation from the Government why it has not been done. I ask the Minister this question: During the course of these negotiations did he make any approach to the meat importers in this country? If he did not make such an approach why did not he? If he did why was it that the meat importers refused to co-operate? Is it because they regarded him as so incompetent that they could not be associated with any such negotiations? Surely those are matters which we might have expected the Financial Secretary to deal with. He did not deal with them because he knows that it is on those matters that the Government could not help but be embarrassed.
With regard to the meat situation generally, I remember, as we all do, a very entertaining speech by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House. He gave us figures for the meat consumption in 1938 of an inmate of a Public Assistance institution run by the London County Council. I congratulate the Government on the fact that they are at any rate providing us with just a fraction more meat than the right hon. Gentleman said the inmates of the Public Assistance institutions were getting in 1938. I do not necessarily accept his figures; they may or may not be right; but I should have thought that the Minister of Food, when he repeatedly makes claims about our meat consumption, should say—expressing it in the terms used by his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House —that it means that we are slightly better off than the inmates of Public Assistance institutions were in 1938.
The position during 1952 was that we had less meat than we had in 1950; less meat than in 1949; less meat than in 1948; less meat than in 1947 and less meat than in 1946. That is in spite of the fact that 1952 was a year in which we got meat from the Argentine. Apart from carcase meat, as a result of Government policy, during 1952 canned meat was cut by 32,000 tons, or 18 per cent., in the first nine months of the year.
I want to touch upon the meat supply position as given by the Financial Secretary. I do not think the Minister would contradict the fact that his estimate of 1,800,000 tons for 1953 is an estimate on the most optimistic expectations. To make that estimate he has assumed that we are to get 238,000 tons from the Argentine. I hope we do; but we have never before in recent years received the amount that the Argentine have undertaken to supply. There has always been a very big shortfall, as there was last year. If we were taking a realistic estimate I think we should have to write that down.
He is saying that we are to get 140,000 tons from Australia. I hope he is right, but in 1952 we received not 140,000 tons but 34,000 tons. In the case of New Zealand he said that we should get 360,000 tons. Last year we got 348,000 tons, which was a very good effort by the New Zealanders. He puts home production at just over one million tons. However, if we are talking about adequate meat supplies, we have to remember that this is a very serious shortfall. Even this expected figure—which is an optimistically anticipated one—is a very great and serious shortfall from the pre-war position.
I do not accuse the right hon. Gentleman for giving these figures to the House, but I make the qualification, with regard to the figures he gave for the pre-war years, that in those years there were fewer people to feed. If we are given the bulk figures we have to translate them into individual consumption.
I am sorry. I thought that the hon. Gentleman did. In any case, the figures have been given.
The first point I make is that if we are taking the meat supply position as it is this year it is seriously below what it was pre-war. Moreover, even according to these most optimistic estimates, it is about—and only about—what we had in 1950. Then we imported 1,723,000 tons. The Minister of Food is saying, following this Agreement, that if we make the most optimistic estimates conceivable of the meat supplies, the position this year will be about the same as it was in 1950.
The reason I emphasise this point is that on this side of the Committee we know why the Minister is putting out "puffs" about the meat supply position. It is because he intends to deration meat as soon as he can do it without too great a public outcry. He will be derationing meat in circumstances in which we shall have no more meat than we had in 1950, and far less meat than we had in prewar days. He hopes to be able to do that, and already in his own mind he is translating into price terms the effect of the increased prices that will result as a repercussion of the Agreement, and the effect of the derationing, decontrol and desubsidising of feedingstuffs.
There will be a steep increase, whether it be at one blow or several blows, in the price of meat. The consumption of meat will be so reduced that even what was regarded in 1950 as quite an inadequate ration will be sufficient in the circumstances, so effectively will demand have been diminished by price increases. That is why I have been mentioning 1950. What the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food said subsequent to taking office was:
We shall solve our meat problem only when South America gets back to full production.
I hope nobody will suggest that the present figure represents full production. It is nowhere near even the stipulated amount of the original Agreement.
It is significant that instead of the Ministry of Food expressing themselves as dissatisfied, realising how woefully short we are of meat supplies, we have had, immediately after this Agreement, exaggerated accounts of the meat we might get and suggestions that it will be adequate. This is the same course of events as had a drastic effect upon the production of the Argentinians before, when they cut back production and we cut back meat consumption in this country and then effectively distributed it through higher prices.
It is no good our saying to the Argentinians, "We want you to get back to full production," and it is no use the Parliamentary Secretary saying that the only solution of our meat difficulties is to have full production in South America when, at the current levels of production, the suggestion is being made that we have, or are getting, the red meat that Lord Woolton promised the electorate. We are not getting it. The shocking thing is that within the next year or so this inadequate supply of meat, by de-rationing, may be spread unevenly among the people. I should have thought that that was something that none of us wanted.
I therefore appeal to the Minister of Food not to exploit this Agreement and the fact that he has had to pay this very large increase for the meat that he is receiving, so as to force the derationing of meat here through the inability of large numbers of people to consume even the current ration. Perhaps I have embarrassed the Government a little. Paradoxically, I did not intend to do so, but the course that the Government are pursuing on food matters makes it extremely difficult not to speak with indignation despite the moderation or modesty with which one may try to express oneself.
The hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) started his speech pianissimo and then lurched into his usual party speech. He himself confessed to having done it. He has done it so often that he did it unconsciously. I sometimes think he must do it in his sleep when he thinks of meat.
He said that we had a very bad case and that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury had to walk very warily and state his case very carefully because he had such a bad case. The hon. Gentleman quoted the Chancellor of the Exchequer on a former occasion to the effect that State trading was bad and gave unsatisfactory results. Both sides of the Committee ought to agree with one another, however, that Argentina will sell neither better nor worse meat because the Conservative Party or the Socialist Party are in power in this country. They will drive as hard a bargain as they can for their own people, and they are neither more tender nor harder. They go into conference as hard bargainers and they get the best they possibly can. Whether we go as private traders or bulk buyers, all we can do as Socialists or Conservatives, is to bargain with such cards as we have in our possession.
The former Minister of Food made a statement about lavish concessions in price that we are now making to the Argentinians for their meat. He went on to say that by any test this was a bad Agreement and that the West Riding of Yorkshire felt considerable dismay that better terms had not been obtained. The hon. Member for Sunderland, North, knows full well that it is against the background of world conditions that this Agreement and other agreements must be judged.
I have said that several times and I always stick to that point of view. Anyone who reads the reports of the United Nations on the Food situation, or the F.A.O. report from Rome knows full well the three factors that control what we do in this Government and what was done by the former Government. There is the enormous world population and the fact that there are not so many food surpluses available; the fact that we have not the money to buy the surpluses that are available, and lastly, but perhaps the most important, the demand by the coloured peoples for a fairer share of what is going. Against that background we cannot dictate and say exactly what we are going to do.
It has been stated that we have made lavish concessions in price, but the price that we have paid is not dictated ultimately by the Argentine but by ourselves. In this Agreement we can see clearly that trade is barter between the two countries, and the price we pay to the Argentine for their meat is fixed first in terms of the prices that we charge them for the goods that we supply.
The Chancellor said in reply to a Question I put to him last Tuesday that under this Agreement we shall pay for frozen beef, chilled type, £161 a ton. The pre-war price was £36 2s., which is an increase of 345 per cent. The frozen lamb price which he gave was £148 a ton as against £52 5s. pre-war, or an increase of 183 per cent. Freight charges, an important factor, are up from a pre-war figure of £5 8s. 7d. to £14 12s., an increase of 168 per cent.
I wonder if those comparisons are right? The hon. Member has given a figure of £161 for chiller quality beef shipped frozen. Is he comparing frozen beef today with frozen beef before the war, or is he comparing frozen beef now with chilled beef before the war? There is a lot of difference.
I obtained those figures from responsible quarters of the trade. I take it that they are comparable figures since those were what I asked for. I can only give them to the Committee in good faith. The Committee will see that we are paying for the highest quality beef 345 per cent. and for frozen lamb 183 per cent. more than before the war. The point is what we are asking them to pay in return, because we decide their price by what we ask them to pay for what we supply.
Under this Agreement we are to supply to the Argentine 800,000 tons of coal. Before the war our charge to the Argentine for coal was £1 4s. 6d. Today it is £5 13s., which is an increase of 361 per cent. So we are charging the Argentine a greater increase in price for our coal than they are charging us for their best quality meat. Therefore, if we want cheaper meat from the Argentine the remedy is in our own hands. It is to supply cheaper goods from our country. Obviously, if we charge them more for what we supply to them, they will charge more for what they supply to us. If hon. Members opposite were arguing for the Argentine, that is the line they would take and it is the line that any nation would take.
The freight charges for the coal we sent out there before the war were 12s. 7d. a ton. Today they are £2 14s., which is an increase of 329 per cent. In fuel oil the increase is infinitely smaller. I am not quite sure why, but in fairness I must give it, although it does not suit my case so well. Before the war the sea bunker cost £1 18s. 6d. It is now £3 16s., an increase of only 97 per cent. However, under this Agreement we are to supply the Argentine with 27,000 tons of tinplate. Before the war the price of 112 sheets was £1 0s. 3d. and today it is £4 5s., an increase of 319 per cent.
What we have to face, no matter who is in power, is that if we continually put up the prices of the goods we send to the Argentine, we must expect them to put up their prices—
I am sure the hon. Gentleman does not want to argue for the Argentine against the case we put forward. In the case of sterling there has been a devaluation, so that the currency rate is different today from what it was before the war, whereas the Argentine made adjustments in their rate of exchange to suit themselves to our disadvantage, so the comparison is not fair.
The Argentine complained that when we devalued the £ they suffered considerably because of their sterling balances and we have had to make compensatory allowances to them. Again it was our own action that caused us to pay more. My point is that it does not matter who is in power. These are the facts we have to face. I would like to see the leaders of both sides of the House explain to their respective followers and to the country these simple facts. We can get more meat if we pay for it. If the price is too high the answer is that our coal and tinplate and steel prices are too high. Incidentally, I tried to get the pre-war comparable steel prices, I failed to do so, and that is why I cannot give them to the Committee.
We shall reduce the price of meat when we bring down the price of our coal, tinplate and steel, and not until then. It is useless pretending to our people that we live in a world where we can demand high prices for what we produce and at the same time demand from the man overseas his goods at a cheap rate. That is to try to live in a fool's paradise, which all of us know is impossible. I beg hon. Members to face that fact at least.
I am very interested in the point of view of the hon. Gentleman. Would he follow it up by urging his party leaders to refrain from the stupid, misleading propaganda in which they have been indulging for many years, that the enemy is not the argument he has just put forward but State buying and bulk purchase, and that the remedy lies in using private traders?
I am afraid I should be out of order to pursue that, but my answer is, yes. We live in a difficult economic. world, and the need for this Supplementary Estimate and the sacrifices it involves in tax can only be understood by our people if we are all frank with them and tell them the facts we know. [An HON. MEMBER: "Rather a death bed repentance."] That is better than none at all. Hon. Members opposite are so sanctimonious about their own self-righteousness that if they do not get to Heaven I am afraid St. Peter will be disappointed.
May I now ask one or two questions about the trading Agreement as affecting textiles? It says in the White Paper that the Supplementary Vote is part of the protocol of 1952 supplementing the Trade and Payments Agreement, Command Paper 8079, and Command Paper 8268 provides the facilities which it says in small type were never used. The former Command Paper on page 18 refers to £13,675,000 of textiles that the Argentine then agreed to buy; cotton, £6,800,000, wool, £4 million, silk, rayon and linen £2,875,000. This time the Argentine has agreed to purchase the modest amount of £3 million worth.
I should like to ask first to what extent did the Argentine fulfil that previous promise to purchase £13,675,000 worth of textiles. Not fully, I think. Therefore, what reliance can we have that she will buy £3 million worth which she is promising to do under this Agreement? I further ask, why did they not buy? Was it because our prices were too high, our quality too low, or because we could not deliver? If that was the case what steps is the President of the Board of Trade taking, through the trade associations, to see that these factors do not prevent us from selling again, if the fault was on our side. I am not sure who was to blame.
Last Tuesday I asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer about this £20 million, and following his answer I asked him if the £20 million had to be granted as a condition of our getting any meat at all. His reply was, in effect, that he would not like to put it as baldly and frankly as that. My hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) said he understood that the Argentine was to buy a lot of things, including £3 million of textiles, mostly cotton piece-goods. The Chancellor said in reply that in general terms that supplementary question was correct. Can I have an assurance from the Minister who is to reply to the debate that we have a firm promise from the Argentine that what the Chancellor said last Tuesday will be carried out, that £3 million worth of cotton piece-goods will be taken during this year?
I do not think my hon. Friend was in the Committee when I intervened during the speech of the former Minister of Food. If my hon. Friend had been present he would have heard me deal with that matter and, I hope, make it clear that my right hon. Friend did not indicate that the whole of the £3 million would be expended on textiles.
I am much obliged to my hon. Friend. My hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster said:
and £3 million of textiles, mostly cotton-piece goods, are to be supplied from Britain as a direct further aid to the difficulties that have occurred in Lancashire in the last 12 months?
In reply the Chancellor said:
I hope that we shall receive some enlightenment when the winding-up speech is made. [An HON. MEMBER: "The hon. Member should have listened."] I have listened, and will listen again, because I think this is important. Furthermore, speaking for the textile industry, I should hope that the Board of Trade or whoever will deal with the matter will see that as many of what I call final or end products will be sold rather than yarns and piece-goods. We want to see exports of goods into which we have put as much labour as possible.
I cannot see, when this Agreement comes to an end, that we are ever to get cheap meat again. The Argentine is developing its own secondary industries; it does not really want our textiles and consumer goods; it wants to produce them itself. The things which the Argentine does want are tinplate, steel, petroleum and coal, the price of all of which we are raising. If we could only say to our people that the remedy is in our own hands, that while the amount of meat we can have is not unlimited but the price is the price we demand for our own products, and if the Financial Secretary to the Treasury would use his great powers to put that over to the public, I think he and we would be doing a service not only to the Government but to the whole country.
I am surprised at the atmosphere in the Committee tonight. We are discussing something of the utmost importance to every home in the country. I am more than surprised when I look at the empty benches opposite, because I remember that on the last occasion on which we debated the Argentine Agreement the party opposite turned out in great numbers, with very forceful criticism. Tonight I count four back benchers opposite, one asleep, dead to the world, including the Argentine, and the Front Bench looking like a bunch of extinct volcanoes.
On the previous occasion this was called the "housewives" battle." Members opposite, including the hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Osborne), talked about telling the people the real position, but what did they tell the people? The last time they confronted the people they told them that their aim would be a cheap and plentiful supply of food—that would be the Conservative aim. When this Argentine Protocol was last discussed in the House I sat and listened, and I noted that the right hon. Gentleman who is now Leader of the House had a terrific amount of criticism to offer. He first criticised the delays; there were to be further talks. That did not suit the Opposition. I have heard the same sort of thing tonight from the Government benches.
The right hon. Gentleman on that occasion criticised the Andes Agreement. He said that the Labour Government paid for meat in advance, which was a very foolish thing to do, but when the party opposite went before the electors they did not tell the electors that we had actually paid our accounts in advance: they said that we were bankrupt. I understand a bankrupt to be a person who pays no one. He then went on to ask whether anything had been done about the moneys for the bus and tramways undertakings or to increase the import licences for British trade.
There is nothing about feedingstuffs in the Protocol … we … depend on … especially maize.
Now this is a very serious matter from the point of view of British agriculture…
He then finished by criticising the price of £120 per ton. He talked of the battle that was now lost, and he quoted the then Minister of Food, who said:
Our fault, if it be a fault, is simply that we believed that the great and proud country of Great Britain was prepared to stand up to Argentina." —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th February, 1951; Vol. 483, c. 1977.]
The present Leader of the House said:
So did everybody. We hoped they would, but they collapsed like a pack of cards.
The right hon. Gentleman finished that speech by criticising State trading. We heard that over and over again, but what is being done now? The right hon. Gentleman said:
I shall be interested … to hear the explanation which Ministers are to give. But I am afraid—I cannot help it … —that we shall find that it is just one more case of inefficiency and muddle." —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th July, 1951; Vol. 489, c. 2510–2517.]
That was the song that was constantly being sung by hon. Members who now occupy the benches opposite.
Double, double, boil and trouble,
Fires burn and cauldrons bubble.
Everything the Labour Government did was wrong; they could do better.
I remember hearing a broadcast by an hon. Lady Member of the party opposite. She is not present tonight, although I should have thought she would be very interested in the Argentine Agreement. This is what she said over the wireless:
Dad has got more in his pay packet, it is true. He has got nearly double what he got pre-war, but somehow people do not seem to be any better off. There is the meat muddle—.
It was a meat muddle when it was in the hands of the Socialists; it is a piece of first-class bargaining when it is in the hands of the Tories, at least they would have us believe so. The hon. Lady went on:
Six months after the Socialists had refused to pay £120 a ton they agreed to pay the Argentine £128. A Conservative Government would leave the buying of meat to men who knew their job and who could do it at their own risk.
We have had a Conservative Government in now for more than a year, and how much are we paying for Argentine meat? I notice from the Protocol that chiller quality beef shipped chilled was £181 per ton. What have those who criticised the Labour Government for giving £128 to say to this £181? Are they going back to the electors to apologise? Will there be apologies in the "Daily Express" and all the other newspapers that whitewash the views of hon. Members opposite? Not a bit of it. The "Daily Express" will be filled tomorrow with Rita Hayworth's divorce proceedings.
For frozen beef sides the price was £161 per ton, and for frozen pork cuts it was £262 10s. per ton. These are the prices being paid by the people who promised the electors that they could do so much better if they were just given a chance. "Time for a change"—and the electors believed it.
There is a serious side to this. I noticed that the reply of the Ministry of Food last week to a Question of mine as to whether the price would increase was that it would not be increased at present. When will it increase? The reply was very indefinite. I want to know if the right hon. and gallant Gentleman can assure us that there will be no further increases in price.
The main alternative to butcher meat is cheese. I pay Is. 4d. for 3½ oz. That works out at approximately 6s. per lb. I am talking of the nearest in taste and texture that I can get to what was known as "Webb's Cheese." Webb's Cheese was 1s. 2d. a lb., and now, if we can get rationed cheese at all, it is 2s. 2d., and we cannot even get it when we are due for our ration.
The butcher meat is bound to go up in price and, therefore, the children, who are already suffering, will suffer more. I think it has been proved that there are 2 million rations which are not being taken up, and it is chiefly children who are not getting the rations. I know there is an enormous amount of sympathy for old age pensioners. They are so thoroughly organised that every hon. Member on both sides of the Committee talks of the old-age pensioner. But I am the mother of a fairly large family and I am very concerned with the possibility of our growing children being deprived of protein. They need all the butcher meat that can be put on their plates for them. The Minister of Food has to deprive us of eggs, which is another source of protein, and of cheese, and is now making butcher meat dear. He is making a very serious mistake.
The whole tendency of the present Government has been away from fair shares and towards increased prices so that food is available, not to the people who have big families, but the people who have big purses. I am surprised and astonished that in view of the criticism which hon. Members opposite made of the Labour Government they should make such a hash of this new Argentine Agreement.
The hon. Lady has reminded us of the prospects which the Conservative Party put before the electors at the last General Election. In the case of meat, as in the case of other essential food supplies, those promises are being brought to fruition and consumers are in fact getting more red meat now than they did in the days of the Labour Government.
It is well to remind ourselves of the figures. In 1952 the total meat supply was 1,550,000 tons and in 1951 it was 1,456,000 tons. That is a satisfactory advance in which the home producer as well as our very good friends in New Zealand have played full parts. As far as Argentine meat is concerned, I think it must be obvious to all that the present Government have done the best they could under the circumstances which they inherited from the last Government.
In some phases of food policy, the Government have taken courageous steps. They have recognised that State buying and State trading is a bad way of doing business. They have recognised that it is not really the job of the Foreign Office, the Board of Trade, the Ministry of Food or the Treasury to be trying to haggle in the world's markets. We have the most admirable civil servants, the finest in the world, but they are just not qualified for that task and it is not fair that it should be put upon them indefinitely.
I imagine that had we gone on with Socialism, that would have become a permanent feature of our commercial life. Thank goodness, the electors decided not to go on with Socialism. We Conservatives want this Government to take the earliest possible opportunity of doing just what the hon. Lady reminded us that we said we would do: that is, to leave the buying of meat to men who know the job and who will do it at their own risk. I am sure —and so, indeed, are the electors who supported the Conservative Party—that this will be a better way, a less embarrassing way so far as our diplomatic relations with other countries are concerned. I believe, too, that it is a better way from the point of view of our traders who are seeking to develop export markets abroad.
My hon. Friend the Member for Louth (Mr. Osborne) spoke of the importance of developing and expanding the trade for finished textiles in South America. That is vitally important, but I do not believe that these matters can be arranged by civil servants here in this country. Indeed, if it is made a Government-to Government deal, it may well happen in practice, as it did under the last Government, that difficulties are put in the way of completing those undertakings.
After all, full undertakings were given at the time when the hon. Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. J. Edwards) was Economic Secretary in the last Government and went to South America. Unhappily, as we now know, those undertakings were not carried out by the Argentine Government. That kind of Government-to-Government undertaking may be accepted in spirit, but there is not the commercial urge to carry it through successfully.
We hope that under this new arrangement, we shall move towards a freer economy in meat trading, and, indeed, in the whole of our business with the Argentine. I urge Ministers to press ahead in freeing the meat trade, just as they have done courageously within the last week in freeing the trade for feeding-stuffs and cereals. I am sure that the country will support them and that in that way we shall get additional meat. We shall have to pay realistic prices, but it is no good the hon. Lady pretending to the Committee that meat is a cheap or easy commodity to buy in the world —it simply is not.
I have given the figures, but perhaps the hon. Lady was not present. We are getting more red meat and we will get further increases in the coming year.
Let my right hon. Friends the Ministers lose no opportunity of pressing ahead with freeing the meat trade, as has been done, and as will, I believe, be proved to be of great advantage, in freeing the cereal trade. Do not let us drift into another year and find that we are still faced with these unsatisfactory circumstances under which the Government have had to negotiate this latest trade deal with the Argentine.
I did not expect to speak when I came into the House this afternoon, but as the debate proceeded and, obviously, was confined to meat—home meat, New Zealand meat, Argentine meat and Australian meat—I was reminded that during the Summer Recess, when in my constituency when the cattle markets were being held, I was talking to a New Zealand farmer who commented rather adversely on some of the conditions about our own meat.
That farmer told me what happened in New Zealand. I think it is almost law there that every cow and bull has to have its horns cauterized or caustic soda'd. In other words, one is not allowed to have cattle with horns because of the damage that they do to other cattle on their way to market. Having been to various abattoirs, that farmer went on to say that he was amazed at the amount of damage that was done by cows and bulls, when being taken to market, when herded in the various trucks, carts and lorries in which they are taken.
I asked him how much he estimated to be the loss of beef on each cow, and he said about 1 lb. on each side—that is, 2 lb. per cow. I understand that the figures which I have been given are not all for beef, but the Minister will know how much is sheep and how much is cow. We have a million tons of homegrown meat per year. I am advised that there are about four cows to the ton, and if 2 lb. of meat is lost on every cow, my calculation shows that 8 million lb. of meat is lost every year through the method of marketing these various beasts.
I noticed that the hon. Member was not here. Had he been present, he would know that the debate had ranged over the whole question of meat. I dare say that my figures are exaggerated. Briefly, however, if 2 lb. of meat is lost on every cow, with four cows to the ton, 8 million lb. of meat is lost if all the cattle are cows. Therefore, I put it to the Minister, who is most conversant with meat and marketing, that he might save the home market quite a lot of meat if he consulted with his right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture and saw that the farming community got a little more up to date and did not get quite so much damage to their cattle and sheep when bringing them to market.
Last Saturday I was in an aeroplane coming from Kano to Tripoli, when I was given a copy of the "Manchester Guardian" for Friday last, which told me that there was to be a debate on the Argentine Trade Agreement. I had not then seen the Protocol, but when I had got back and seen it I at once found myself in a very familiar world. If imitation be a sincere form of flattery, the members of my mission and I have been very highly flattered, for there is only one new feature in the protocol that has been published in the White Paper.
In 1951, no one on the Opposition benches had a good word to say for the Agreement that I had signed. Yet this protocol in all respects, except Article 8. contains exactly the same principles as the 1951 protocol, except for one or two omissions, to which I shall have to call attention. I entirely agree with what the Financial Secretary had to say about the work of the Ambassador and all the people who took part in the negotiations. I know most of them personally. I have sat up through the night with many of them, and I would add my very sincere words to what he has said about their work.
I am very glad that agreement has been reached, for I still hold the view that there are great possibilities for co-operation between the Argentine Republic and ourselves. I do not believe that we ought at any time to do anything which interferes with the best possible relationship between our two countries. I hope the Government will not think me ungenerous if I do not feel able to extend my compliments to the members of Her Majesty's Government.
I was interested in what the Financial Secretary had to say. He said, very properly, "Of course, we did not get all we wanted. We started off with some ideas, and no doubt the Argentine Government started off with some, and of course, we had to reach a compromise." I did not interrupt him, but I felt like asking whether Her Majesty's Government really tried to get what they wanted. For if we are to believe what they told us when they were in Opposition, and if we are to believe what they told us during the General Election, then they wanted many things they have not been able to get.
They wanted to abolish bulk buying. The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) said he hoped they would get on with it. Who prevented them? Not the Argentine Government. Did they try to abolish long-term contracts? I will bet my boots they spent a good deal of time arguing with the Argentine representatives against making spot purchases. The truth is that what was wrong when the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. and gallant Gentleman and their colleagues were in Opposition now becomes right when they are in power.
Take all the talk there was that these negotiations ought to be in the hands of experts; that it was monstrous, it was said, that they should be handled by ignorant bureaucrats. Let us remember what the present Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of National Insurance said when he chased us round with questions when I was away in the Argentine, and in the speech which he made in July, 1951. Who prevented all this happening? My own guess is that the rumours in Smithfield were right; that Her Majesty's Government put out feelers and found nobody in Smithfield was prepared to take on the job. To all of this we have had no explanation from the Financial Secretary and, indeed, no reformed drunkard ever preached temperance with such vehemence as the Financial Secretary now espouses the causes he thoroughly condemned in his salad days when he was on the Opposition benches. So too with other hon. Members. Where are they? There is not a single hon. Member here today who took part in the debate which we had when I came back from the Argentine in 1951. Not a single hon. Member who spoke in that debate has graced us with his presence at all. Where is the present Under-Secretary of State for War who said that the only redeeming feature of the Agreement I made was the fact that it was to be reviewed in 12 months? Where is the hon. Member for Stafford and Stone (Mr. H. Fraser) who made what was in some ways a slightly offensive speech? Where is the Leader of the House, with all his questions to me about feeding stuffs and the like—about which there is not one word in this Agreement now signed on behalf of the present Administration?
I wish to ask the Government a number of questions on points which I think rather important. I do not propose to say anything more on the question of meat prices, but I would like to ask the right hon. and gallant Gentleman if he can tell us anything about the prospects for chilled beef. Again Article 5 has been reproduced, and as I said when I last spoke on the subject in 1951, nothing I did in my negotiations excited the imagination of the Argentine people and Press more than the offer I then made to buy as much chilled beef as the Argentine cared to produce.
I should like to know from the right hon. and gallant Gentleman—as I have no sources of information on this matter—what has been happening about that? What really caused the trouble? What are now the prospects, since the Article has been reproduced again in this present Protocol? I, as I think would most people in Britain, would welcome a resumption of the trade in chilled beef if that were possible.
The second thing to which I must refer is the interpretation to be placed on Article 8 which talks of permitting the importation of United Kingdom manufactured goods to be agreed up to a total of £3 million. I would say quite frankly to the Parliamentary Secretary that I found his answer on this point entirely unsatisfactory. I was not present last week when the matter was raised, but it is perfectly true that in reply to the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) the Chancellor left the impression that the £3 million was to cover textiles, mainly cotton piece goods. It is equally clear now that that is not the position. The Financial Secretary has made it perfectly plain that that is not so. Unfortunately he has left us completely in the air, because all we know now is that there are to be £3 million worth of manufactured goods.
But, as I very rightly said, when I interrupted an hon. Member who spoke earlier, we do not know for certain that it will include any textile piece goods at all. I asked the Financial Secretary what we were to understand by this term "manufactured goods." If we take the meaning that attached to it at the time of the original Agreement of 1949, and if we go through the Schedules there—I have not done it in great detail and I cannot do it precisely —I should be surprised if the manufactured goods included in Schedule 3 of the original Agreement did not amount to £50 million. Because it covers not only cotton manufactures, wool and worsted manufactures, silk, rayon, linen and other textile manufactures, but it covers steel manufactures and non-ferrous metal manufactures. It includes electrical goods and appliances of all kinds. It includes manufactured articles like cutlery, ironmongery, instruments, and a whole host of other things. Even if I am wrong about £50 million, it is of the order of £40 million or £50 million worth of manufactured goods.
I am sorry but the hon. Member is quite wrong. It is true that the aggregate total of Schedule 3 is £92 million. But he will understand that the Schedule includes coal, iron and steel and a number of materials, and my difficulty has been to distinguish between the materials, or semi-manufactured things and the wholly manufactured things. But my rough estimate is that it cannot be less than £40 million or £50 million, maybe more, that could properly be regarded as manufactured goods. It is against that background that we have to consider this offer of £3 million.
We can come to that. It is difficult to form a precise figure, but let us suppose, as we can from the figures here, that cotton manufactures were of the order of, say, £6 million, and that the wool piece goods and knitwear were a bit over £3 million. Then we get some sense of the relationship of this to that. It may be one-fifth, it may be one-sixth; I do not know. But if this £3 million were distributed in anything like the way in which it was in 1949, then it would not be £3 million of textile goods that we should expect. At most it would be £500,000 or something like that. That is derisory.
It may be said that this is an advantage over the arrangements in the Protocal of 1951. I should like to remind the Committee of how I left the matter when I completed these negotiations. The Minister of Economy, as he then was called, and I, together left an agreed minute of instruction to the Mixed Consultative Committee. In that minute we recorded the fact that the Minister of Economy had proposed that 10 per cent. of the import licences should cover what were called non-essentials. In other words he would take the goods he really needed —the tractors, the cars, machinery and whatever it might be—and that he would issue permits for those articles not regarded as absolutely essential to the extent of 10 per cent, of the total.
Again the Financial Secretary has been silent about what happened on that. I should like to know. This is an occasion for us to be brought up to date. What happened as a result of that minute? I know that many of the arrangements I made have not taken place. I should like more information as to the extent to which import licences were issued under this arrangement. I wish to put it on record that I do not regard that £3 million token figure as really worth putting in. I am not at all sure that it is not a bad thing to have that figure in, because it can perhaps be regarded as a maximum figure—that is the risk —whereas in fact it is really only a token figure, and in terms of any reasonable expectation of trade it is absolutely derisory.
I do not want Lancashire or Yorkshire to be left with the slightest doubt about this. The impression left by the Chancellor of the Exchequer is entirely wrong. Nothing that so far has been said should be used by people in Yorkshire to build up an expectation of any trade worth the name under this heading, because within such a small figure as £3 million a good deal of the trade obviously can go in goods which have nothing to do with textiles. I should be grateful if the Minister would tell us more about that.
I put it to the Financial Secretary that to leave this completely in the air would be a mistake. I know that the final niceties about what are to be manufactured articles are not details which he can give us today, but he can tell us whether, broadly, manufactured articles are to cover what were regarded as manufactured articles in the original Agreement of 1949.
I turn to Article 11 which is concerned with the public utility companies. The present protocol repeats word for word Article 13 of the protocol that I signed except that the word "again" appears in front of the word "reviewed." It is nearly two years since that protocol was signed. I ask the Minister to tell us what has happened in that period. While the original Article 13 was one that I was prepared to defend in the circumstances, I should expect that something would have happened in the period of nearly two years about these public utility companies. If we are asked, in a sense, to approve this Article again, we ought to know what has been happening in the meantime.
The final question is that of remittances and arrears. Before I say anything about financial remittances I should like to ask the Minister to tell us whether he has any estimate of the present state of commercial payments. What, if any, are the commercial arrears today? One of the matters that troubled me during the last negotiation was this question. We had to deal with it.
The question of remittances is not mentioned in the protocol. I share the regret of the Financial Secretary about the omission of any provision for remittances. I pointed out in a speech I made on 5th July, 1951, that from the point of view of the Argentine Government it was essential for remittances to be maintained. The reason I then gave, I give again. The Argentine Government, if they are still of the mind that they were when I negotiated with them, would like more foreign capital in the Argentine. Both the President and the then Minister of Finance made that plain to me when I was there. As I said in 1951, the attraction of foreign capital must depend very largely on the regularity with which reasonable remittances are made possible.
I would say—and here I speak as much to the Argentine Government as to our own—that the remittance problem is of very great importance for proper commercial relationship between our two countries. I know that if the country has not got sterling the position is very difficult. I know that it is difficult to earmark sterling for remittances when it is needed for coal, oil or semi-manufactured goods to keep industry going. But, taking a long view, I am sure that this remittance problem is central to any decent commercial relationships between our two countries. I am extremely disappointed that at no point in this document is there any reference to it.
I have today opened my mouth after having kept a self-imposed vow of silence during the whole of the time that the negotiations have been taking place lest an indiscreet word of mine might put a pound or two on the price of beef, which is what I suspect happened as a result of indiscreet words used by some people during the course of my negotiations in the Argentine. I should be grateful if I could have answers to the specific questions which I have put.
Much as I appreciate the great work that has been done in reaching this Agreement, glad as I am that an agreement has been reached, I have no doubt that this protocol that has now been signed is the final evidence, if any were needed, of the fact that when the present Administration were in opposition they were either lamentably ignorant about the situation or, if they were not ignorant, they were grossly irresponsible in the way in which they sought petty party advantage and neglected national interest.
This document is, from a purely party political point of view, the complete refutation of nearly everything that right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite said at the General Election about the Argentine Agreement of 1951. It tears in pieces their Election pledges about bulk purchase, long-term contracts and the like.
I have made as careful a note as I can of the many points that have been raised, and I will do my best to deal with them. I am not surprised that most of the speeches have dealt with the question of meat. Many other important points have been raised, and I will do my best to deal with them.
The first comment I should like to make as a result of this discussion today is that, however much the Opposition may say that this is a bad Agreement, judging by the number of hon. Members, not only on this side of the Committee, but, I would remind the hon. Lady the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mrs. Mann), on her own side also, it does not indicate to me that there is any great feeling such as one would have expected to find. As a matter of fact, I have been here the whole time, arm, on the whole, we have had a bigger majority than our real Parliamentary one ever since the sitting of this Committee started.
We are told that this Agreement is a bad Agreement. I think the hon. Gentleman the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey), who is not now in his place, said that one reason why he thought it was a bad Agreement was that there is only one signatory on our side—the Ambassador. If the hon. Gentleman were here, I would remind him that the previous Agreement had only one signatory on our side, and that signatory was the hon. Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. J. Edwards), who has just resumed his seat. That fact did not make it a bad Agreement; I am certain of that.
With regard to the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bradford, Central (Mr. Webb), the former Minister of Food, which has been repeated by many other hon. Members, suggesting how very much worse we managed the question of price than they did, I should like to say a word or two concerning the price. First of all, in regard to the Agreement as a whole, we can at least say that, while not so very much more expeditious, it certainly did not take as long as the previous Agreement. May I say something else which is of great importance? It did not lead to any feeling of any sort this time, nor did it lead to what the right hon. Gentleman opposite called an impasse. At no period did the negotiations break down. It is true that the negotiations took about nine months, but the whole of that period could not be attributed to any delay in the negotiations themselves, because two events intervened which have been already referred to by one of my hon. Friends. The first was the General Election and a consequent change of Government, and, after that, there came the death of Senora Peron, which further delayed the resumption of negotiations. There was no breakdown during that period, and we have no need to send a Minister out there to try to get the thing settled.
The Agreement, of course, covers a much wider field than just meat by itself. We are to receive under this Agreement 38,000 tons more meat and offal than we received in the previous year, and, what is even more important, instead of receiving 90,000 tons of beef, which we took the year before, we shall receive 144,000 tons, an increase of 60 per cent. in beef, which is the one thing we want. We shall not be taking any mutton, which, I am sure, will be very well received by the people of this country.
Before we started these negotiations a price of £250 per ton was mentioned, and, when the negotiations actually started, the price was just under £200 per ton. We have been able to secure this contract at a price—what is called a pilot price—of £161 per ton. The hon. Lady the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie quoted a price of £181, which appears, it is true, in the protocol, but that is for chilled beef, and represents a difference of £20 per ton, which was also the difference under the previous Agreement. We settled at a price well below that at which the negotiations started.
Let me say a word about the negotiations which took place the previous time. When the Argentine Government talked in terms of £140 per ton, although we had entered into an agreement at a price of £97 10s. per ton, the figure mentioned from this side was only £90 per ton. In a period of what the hon. Member for Sunderland, North described as soaring prices, in order to make sure that the negotiations were to go through successfully he and the previous Government offered the Argentine £7 10s. per ton less than they had paid the year before. No wonder we had what the right hon. Gentleman opposite called an impasse; I am not surprised. What is much more important, the late Government did not take the care that we took to husband meat resources at the time of the negotiations, with the result that they were weakened in their negotiations as time went on. We know how the ration went down at that time during the period of the negotiations; it changed six times.
The right hon. and gallant Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He says that we did not take care to husband our meat resources, and immediately says that the ration went down and down. The fact of the ration going down was evidence of husbanding our resources.
The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that he did not husband the resources, and, because he did not do so, the ration went down. If he had realised, as he ought to have done, that the negotiations were becoming dangerously protracted, surely he would have brought the ration down before he did, and would have been able to prevent bringing the ration down to the lowest ever seen in the history of this country—a ration of 8d. for carcass meat and 2d. for canned meat.
The right hon. Gentleman himself, in a debate at that time, said that the Argentine Government had asked for an average rate of £120 per ton. This figure, he said, represented an increase of 25 per cent. on the price paid last year, which he thought was too high. Therefore, he said, quite resolutely, they were not prepared to pay that price. Their resolution was not to pay £120, but, eventually, they paid £126.
A lot of comment or criticism has been directed at the price we have now paid, but the £126, if it comes to that, was not the total price which the Government paid for the meat at that time. There was a back payment—a very substantial one of £6½ million — and, if we take that into consideration, as we ought to do, the price they paid for the meat they got was nearer £158 per ton than £126. When it comes to criticism of the price we have offered to pay, all I can say is that it is not fair to compare £126 with £161, because, when we take into consideration this very substantial sum which, owing to devaluation, had to be paid, surely, in all logic, that must be debited against the meat we were getting. That is really the true comparison.
I think the Minister is very much less than fair. We received a good deal of meat on conditional invoices; that is to say, what was to be paid was to be settled hereafter. One of the things I tried to do in the negotiations was to settle what that payment was to be for the conditional invoices, and that figure was £6 million-odd. It is quite unfair to say that the price agreed for meat we have already had is to be regarded as though it was part of the price for meat we have still to come.
The claim was made—I am not criticising it—that, because of devaluation, they were entitled to a better price than that which we had agreed to pay. I think it is nearer to our figure than to the figure of £126 per ton, but let us put it no higher than that. So much for the question of price.
Among the other questions raised was that of the amounts we expect to receive. The hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey), who is never an optimist in this Committee, seemed to think that we had exaggerated the amounts that we expect to get. I do not think we have exaggerated the New Zealand supplies. They have shown in the past what they can do. He said that we had exaggerated the Australian supplies because we only got 34,000 tons last year and we are expecting 140,000 tons this year. The fact is that last year there was exceptional trouble in Australia which made it impossible to get anything like the quantity of meat. This year we are expecting to get 140,000 tons.
Let it not be forgotten, though, that one of the difficulties may be, not this year but the following year, that the full effect of the two serious droughts may be felt on beef in particular. I do not put it higher than that. At any rate, at the moment we do not think that we are exaggerating when we say that we expect 140,000 tons.
As to the Argentine, it may be said that we are being over-optimistic with respect to shipping. I do not think we are being too optimistic at all. I have not even taken into account the possibility that the position will be better than it was last year. The hon. Member for Sunderland. North suggested that my sole object is to get out of rationing. I can assure him that that is not so. Nobody would be more happy than I to get out of rationing, but I am not so devoid of a sense of responsibility that when a basic food commodity is in short supply I would consider doing anything of the sort, and so long as I am responsible there will be proper regulation of scarce commodities. It is only right that I should say that.
Further questions were raised with regard to canned beef and tinplate. One question—a perfectly legitimate one—dealt with the possibility of our exporting 27,000 tons of tinplate. We need have no fear of the effect of this upon our canning industry in this country because we have removed in the last two weeks all the controls on canning of fruit and vegetables as tinplate is in free supply.
With regard to corned beef, the policy of this Government is the same as that of the last Government—namely, not to use canned corned beef for current consumption but to add it to the general food reserves. The reason the last Government had to issue canned meat was that they had not got enough fresh meat to make up the ration. I am happy to say that I have not been in that position yet. In fact, if I may use an expression which has been used frequently, we have a little more red meat than canned beef. Therefore, I do not intend to depart from the policy of putting it to reserve. In any case, there are ample supplies of canned meats in the shops today. Indeed, the complaint we get is that they are sticking a bit in their sale. If the right hon. Gentleman has any difficulty in getting any, I shall be very glad to give him any assistance I possibly can.
The hon. Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie referred to the very common complaint which we have from time to time from hon. Members opposite with regard to the inability of some people to take up the ration. She quoted a figure which, I believe, was given the other day. I think it was the right hon. Lady the Member for Fulham, West (Dr. Summerskill) who said that two million people had not been able to take up their meat ration. A little arithmetic is required here and I hope that I can make it as simple as possible.
The figure of two million represented a period of a month. Therefore, I think I am right in saying it is 500,000 for a week. So far, I think we are in agreement. A figure of 500,000 for a week is something just over 1 per cent. of the people who receive a ration. The figure of just over 1 per cent. has hardly changed in the last 12 months. One of the reasons for that is to be found in the bacon position. Instead of having three ounces, at the time of the last survey we were having five ounces. Even though the take-up was down, there was a greater consumption of bacon, and in addition a much greater consumption of ham.
We have more availability of other foodstuffs such as ham and canned meats. Therefore, it is on the cards that what is happening is what we like to see happening—a greater exercise of freedom of consumer choice, which has for so long been denied to us, and I think it is a good thing to have it back.
It still means that there are 500,000 rations of butchers' meat not being taken up weekly. It is quite possible that there are children who are not getting it. Would the right hon. and gallant Gentleman indicate what are the likely alternatives?
I think that if the right hon. and gallant Gentleman continues to answer the hon. Lady, he will be leaving the Estimate which is before the Committee. I shall be very glad if he will confine himself to the Estimate.
I shall be very happy to return to that question, Mr. Thomas. I should be prepared to continue with my answer to the hon. Lady's question if I were allowed to do so, but as it is out of order I shall not go any further with it.
I was also asked by the right hon. Gentleman a question relating to bulk purchase. This is a very popular theme with the Opposition. I am not complaining; I do not want to deny anybody a bit of fun now and again, but, so far as we on these benches are concerned, our opinion on that has not altered at all since we came into office. It remains the Government's policy to restore the trade to the private trader as soon as we possibly can. I should have thought that plenty of indications have already been given during the last few weeks, particularly by myself, that whenever the opportunity arises that is what we propose to do.
I should, however, like to take each commodity on its merits in deciding whether to exercise decontrol. I would never dream of saying that because I do not believe in bulk purchase, whatever the circumstances, I shall do away with it. Let me give one example. The meat position being what it is, we could not restore the trade to private enterprise at the moment. I have been in consultation with members of the trade and they fully appreciate our difficulties. It is 14 years since we had a free market in meat. I suggest that the amount of meat which we should require in this country would not be 2,100,000 tons which we had before the war, but nearer 2,300,000 tons.
We hope to get increased supplies this year. Actually, we have steadily increased the supplies of meat since we came into office. It is already 15 per cent. more than it was in 1951, and I hope that this year will be the best year since the war. But that still means that we might be 500,000 tons down on any possible estimate which we can make if we had a free market. If we were to free the market that would mean that we must free this commodity from control, quite apart from the obligations to the Dominions and others as to contracts, and so forth. While we have a commodity of this importance in short supply nobody with a sense of responsibility would say, "All right, let it go."
Our complaint is not about any general views that the Conservative Party hold about bulk purchase. It is that hon. Gentlemen who are now Members of the present Government said in the House of Commons at the time of the negotiations in 1951 that we ought to have the negotiations conducted by the trade and that we ought to stop State buying. Our complaint is that in those days the same hon. Gentlemen did precisely what the Minister now condemns as acting irresponsibly.
Fortunately, I was not in the House of Commons at that time, so nobody can say a word to me about that. Apart from that, there is no question at all that in the case of bulk purchase other things, like the balance of payments, are involved. The hon. Gentlemen must not forget that we inherited an extraordinary position from the previous Government. After all, we found a situation that none of us had dreamt of until we saw it for ourselves.
When one comes to a product like wheat, where the question of supply is much nearer the question of demand, there are totally different considerations. Therefore, I and my hon. Friends still stand by what we said before—that, in our judgment, eventually when we can see our way to it, the system we advocate is the only way in which one can really ensure an adequate supply of meat and a supply which, in the long run, will be much cheaper than that which we have today.
I do not think that I can add very much to what my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary has said about Article 8 of the protocol. I think that he has made the position perfectly clear with regard to the £3 million worth of manufactured goods. As the Article says:
The list of these goods and their values will be decided by the Mixed Consultative Committee referred to in Article 4 of the 1949 Agreement, before 15th February, 1953.
There is this difference between the position now and the position in which the hon. Member for Brighouse and Spenborough found himself. At least we have here an undertaking in the protocol itself. We had absolutely nothing out of the previous Agreement, except an exchange of letters; but this is an admission in the protocol itself and this is at least better than what we had before.
The hon. Member for Brighouse and Spenborough also asked what we meant by manufactured goods. They are not all the goods mentioned in the 1949 Agreement but the least essential of them, that is those which otherwise would not be licensed The non-essentials are, of course, very important to us as indeed they are to the Argentinians, as opposed to the goods that can be licensed. They are as much to our interest as to the interest of the Argentinians; and it is on these manufactured goods that the Mixed Consultative Committee have to come to a decision by 15th Febraruy. I cannot add much more to what the Financial Secretary has said about remittances. We are in complete agreement about them and we are most anxious that something should be done.
It is rather important. Many people in the business world are concerned about this. I am not asking for precise figures, but can the Minister give in broad terms what are the financial arrears at the moment? Are they of the order of £6 million or £10 million? What is the order of magnitude?
I am informed that they are about half of the lower figure which the hon. Member gave. I hope that I have dealt with all the points raised during the discussion. It only remains to say—
Will the right hon. and gallant Gentleman answer the question that many millions would like answered? In view of the greatly increased price of meat per ton will there be an increase to the housewife? If so, how soon and by how much?
I answered that question the other day. There is no immediate prospect of meat prices rising.
The hon. Lady the Member for Coat-bridge and Airdrie wanted me to give an undertaking that meat prices would not rise. Obviously, nobody could give an undertaking that nothing would ever rise in price. At the moment, there is no prospect of it. Assuming that the extra price paid for Argentine meat alone went directly into an increased price for the ration—and there are many other things like freight charges involved—it would make a difference of ½d. per lb.
If one takes the increased price for Argentine meat direct into the ration the increase will be about ½d., but freight charges, farm prices, and all kinds of things come in.
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me. The position with regard to chilled beef is more or less as it was when the hon. Member made the last Agreement. We are most anxious, as he was, to get the chilled beef over here. As he knows, what we get is the "chiller" beef. But there is a quite formidable technical obstacle which has not yet been removed. We are expecting small shipments, but I believe that it is roughly 14 years since this kind of beef was shipped and a great deal of technique has to be re-acquired and there must be a good deal of readaptation of ships. We are doing everything possible and the Argentinians have said that they will do all they can to give us chilled beef and, of course, it is that beef that we want above all else.
We have increased beef shipments or the promise of shipments by 60 per cent. over the previous Agreement, which I think is a great advance. I believe that I have shown that this is a pretty good Agreement despite what hon. Members opposite have said. It is to the interest not only of the people of the Argentine but to the interest of the people of this country that we should do as much trade as we possibly can. This is a very old market between the two countries. Therefore, I personally commend this Agreement to the Committee as an Agreement which will take us a further step forward towards the time when we can have the fullest possible trade relations.
That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £10,000,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1953, for sundry expenses connected with Her Majesty's Foreign Service; special grants, including grants in aid; and various other services.