§ Question again proposed, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
§ Mr. Parker
I was saying that Sir William Beveridge makes it plain in his book that the rise in the cost of living during the War was in a large part due to profiteering in foodstuffs, and so on, which took place in the early days of the War owing to the fact that no costing investigations had been carried out beforehand. It is a great pity that the Government have always held up a census of distribution, because if that had been carried out it would have given the Government a good deal of material which would have been useful on this occasion. When Lord Rhondda took over the Ministry of Food in 1917 he had to institute a costing system, and accountants had to be appointed to go into the costs of firms in the food trades to decide what were reasonable profits. It is always difficult to decide what profits are reasonable, and if we are to avoid difficulties of that kind in a future emergency, it is highly desirable that this matter should be gone into before the danger arises. The board ought to see that it has a costing department which would be able to go into all questions associated with the cost of food and the profits now being made so that it would have the information available should an emergency arise.
2316 I would like to quote one or two other examples of difficulties that arose before. The Food Controller fixed a price for grain which was in store for sale for human use, but no price was fixed for damaged grain. The result was that when the price of animal feeding stuffs went up, it became more remunerative to sell grain for animal feeding stuffs than for human consumption. A large proportion of the grain that was stored was then deliberately spoiled so that it could be sold for animal feeding stuffs. As a result Lord Rhondda had to fix prices for animal feeding stuffs and millers' offals which were below those for grain for human consumption. Is that problem being looked into now?
I do not wish to criticise any of the firms which are co-operating with the Government, but are the Government taking steps to see that the amounts which those firms have undertaken to store is always kept at the proper figure? Unless there is an adequate system of inspection we may find in the time of emergency that we had not the stores which these particular firms said that they would have. We cannot entirely trust to their good faith, and it is essential there should be adequate inspection to see that the stores which exist on paper are in existence in reality. If we are to prevent the main difficulties that arose in the last War it is essential that there should be an adequate control of supplies and a prevention of profiteering. That was only secured in the last War by the Government buying supplies themselves at the source and controlling them, allowing the persons who were manufacturing and distributing the food to handle them on commission for the services they rendered. That had to be done finally in order to cut out profiteering. Do the Government propose to do that in the event of an emergency? We on this side of the House would prefer them to do that now and actually own the food supplies all through. If, however, they are not prepared to do that in peacetime, we should like an assurance that they have the machinery ready for doing it should an emergency arise. I would also like the Minister to say a little more about the co-ordination between this service and the other departments I have mentioned, because I am sure the House would like further information on that point.
2317 In conclusion I would like to raise once more the question of the Port and Transport Committee of the Ministry of Transport. When last we debated this matter I pointed out that there were no representatives of trade unions on that body as there were during the last War. There is considerable disquiet that trade union representatives have not been invited to assist on that Committee. They performed valuable service on that Committee in the last War, and we have never been told why they have not been included on the present committee. I hope that the Government will be more conciliatory in future in their advances to the trade unions when they ask their cooperation. We have seen the Government's approach to the Amalgamated Engineering Union in recent weeks, in which the Government have not shown the consideration they might have done. It would greatly help matters if the Government showed a little more consideration, and even elementary courtesy, when approaching trade unions for their co-operation in various State services at the present time.
§ 6.21 p.m.
§ Major Sir George Davies
The hon. Member for Oxford University (Sir A. Salter) who, I am sorry to see, is no longer in his place, who always speaks with authority on this subject which he has made peculiarly his own, found some difficulty in concealing his chagrin that during the period he had been criticising the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence for being merely a planner my right hon. Friend had been quietly proving himself a man of action. The hon. Member came, as he told us, prepared to strike, but decided to relieve his anxiety purely by wounding. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough (Mr. Alexander) clearly and quite naturally found his political conscience so strained at having to approve of anything this Government had done, that he was compelled to drag in such outside considerations as the foreign policy of other countries, Spain, and State trading and enterprise. It is a great satisfaction to have a Measure which has support, sometimes full and sometimes limited, from every quarter of the House, because this is a question which has caused a good deal of anxiety in many minds. It is gratifying to think that in the outcome those who may be classed as the "fear-to- 2318 treaders" have been wiser than the "rush-inners."
There are two points to which I should like to draw attention. One has been touched upon by the hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. O. Evans) who, in his peroration, gave my right hon. Friend some good advice on a matter which, I am sure, had never occurred to him before, that he should employ honest men who knew their job rather than dishonest ones who did not. What I am concerned to speak about is the Schedule, which seems to me unnecessarily restricted. It is confined primarily to what I would call the three F's—food, feed and fertilisers. It occurs to those of us who are uninitiated and the ignorant that this would have been an opportunity, without necessarily guaranteeing the taking of any definite action, to have had a somewhat wider Schedule. The hon. Member for Cardigan mentioned one or two commodities, such as copper and lead. I should naturally like to see the Minister purchase 10 or 20 million tons of sugar, but of course I am interested in sugar. There are two objectives of this legislation. One is the direct provision in case of emergency of commodities of which we have certain supplies in the country, and the other is an indirect provision for reducing protanto the calls on our shipping at such a time so that it can be more definitely utilised for the transport of those commodities which have not been stored to any extent. There are certain vital commodities which in bulk are comparatively small but are of importance. There is, for example, emery, which is essential in munition works and cannot be produced in this country.
While the whole point of the procedure under which the Government have already operated has been quietly, without upsetting the market, to build up stores of certain commodities one would have thought that a somewhat wider Schedule would have given them the opportunity in the same quiet and simple way of getting stores of those commodities which do not bulk very large in their tonnage but which are important to us. The Schedule is restricted to articles of food, and I should have thought some wider wording would have been desirable for possible use in the future in order to enable other commodities to be obtained. On the question of distribution, the Minister pointed out some serious diffi- 2319 culties which arose in the distribution of wheat from the ports, and he said that there was not the same difficulty in the case of sugar as distribution had already been made or was in process of being made. The question of wheat is undoubtedly difficult; and I cannot help feeling that, the ports would obviously be the places which would receive the first attention from enemy aircraft. It might possibly be a penny-wise-and-a-pound-foolish policy if, even at considerable expense, the policy of distribution of these commodities was not kept in the forefront of the minds of those who are responsible for carrying out this policy. I would like a little more assurance and argument to justify the leaving of these great accumulations of wheat in vulnerable positions around our coasts.
From that arises what I thought was a pertinent suggestion from the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Parker) with reference to road transport. If it is decided that these stores are to be left at the ports, then facilities for their rapid distribution become all the more important. I am satisfied that that point has not escaped the mind of my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence, but it does no harm to emphasise it, so that, as the hon. Member opposite said, the development of road transport in this country might become a matter of semi-passive defence in contrast with the construction of definitely military roads in Continental countries of which we hear so much. I have wished to draw attention to those two points only and have no desire to delay proceedings any longer, but I would say what a gratification it is not only to those in this Chamber but to the people throughout the country, to see that there is such unanimity of opinion upon the desirability of this Measure and over the terms in which it has been presented.
§ 6.32 p.m.
§ Mr. Hopkin
I notice with surprise that no representative of the Ministry of Agriculture has been on the Treasury Bench this evening, and I find it difficult to understand his absence seeing that the Title of this Bill is "Essential Commodities Reserves Bill," and that in the Schedules the first commodity mentioned is the food of man. I notice, further, that the Minister of Agriculture is one of 2320 those backing the Bill, and, therefore, I cannot understand why some representative of the Ministry has not attended. The House is dealing now with a problem which can be put in the form of a question: In case of war how are our people to be fed? This Bill is part of the answer. It says, first of all, "We will gain information from traders as to essential commodities," and, secondly, "We will collect and maintain reserves of food." I ask the House to estimate the problem which it is tackling to-day, the problem, mainly, of keeping starvation away from the people of this country in case of war, and to consider how far this little Bill goes towards meeting it. In my respectful submission this Bill is wholly inadequate for the purpose. It is just as though the Government had said yesterday, "Our contribution to the national defence of this country is contained in our air-raid precautions. We say nothing and we do nothing about our fighting services. We leave them in just the same state as they were some years ago."
My criticism of this Bill is that it is a plain delusion as long as the policy of the Government continues to discourage the home farmer from producing more food. As I apprehend, it will be more difficult in any future war to import food from abroad. We shall then have to depend upon the immediate expansion of home production I was surprised indeed that the Minister made no reference to the possibility of storing food upon the farms. I know that it would be very difficult to keep wheat stored in ricks on the farms, but he made no reference at all to storing food by way of keeping additional stock on the farm. It is my submission to the House that this country is at present wholly unprepared for agricultural expansion, and that we could nowhere near meet this problem. What was the position at the end of the War? I will read a quotation from the speech made by the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) in the Caxton Hall on 21st October, 1919:I remember in those days how sorry I was that our great enemy had not imitated our example in reference to agriculture. I had wished in my heart that they had pursued the same policy. I say now that if Germany had pursued the same agricultural policy as we pursued, neglecting her agriculture as we neglected ours, Germany would have collapsed within a year. You cannot take any more chances of that kind for this 2321 country. You cannot do it. We came near to disaster. We got through, but it undoubtedly crippled us. We could have put more into our shipping, we could have put more into our effort. It crippled the effort of our armaments. We could not spare shipping for them. We had to bring food here when it might have been grown on the premises.What is the position to-day? Are we or are we not better able to meet the menace of starvation? In my submission we are not as well placed as we were in 1914. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Parker) has just shown the House, by figures which have not been challenged, that in 1934 agriculture used more tonnage of imported foodstuffs and fertilisers than the total tonnage of our agricultural output. since 1914 our tonnage of steam and motor shipping has declined by 1,500,000 tons, although we have 4,000,000 more mouths to feed.
What are the facts as regards acreage? since 1914 the arable acreage has declined by 16 per cent., the acreage of crops and grass declined by 8 per cent., wheat declined by 2 per cent., barley declined by 46 per cent., oats declined by 28 per cent., potatoes declined by 4 per cent., turnips and swedes declined by 47 per cent. On the other hand, the livestock have increased. Cattle have increased by n per cent., sheep by 2 per cent., and pigs by 47 per cent. The net result has been an increase in livestock and a decrease in the food raised at home on which we feed. The only possible answer to these figures is that we should start now to increase home production.
§ Mr. Speaker
The hon. Member must keep to the Question before the House. It would not be right to use this as an occasion for a Debate upon agriculture. The object of the Bill is the maintenance of reserves of commodities.
§ Mr. Hopkin
With respect, I was trying to argue that it would be far safer and better if those reserves were built up upon the farm. I was about to observe that the Minister could improve this Bill if he were to enlarge Clause 1, which gives power to make inquiries, to the extent of having a complete survey of the countryside, in order to find out not only from the traders but also from the farmers what they are capable of producing and how far they can meet the problem. I would also suggest that the present policy of the Government of restriction as regards sugar 2322 beet, wheat, barley, and oats ought now to be abandoned. It may be that a case for restriction can be made out if the object is to build up orderly marketing, but in face of the shortage that policy is obviously unsuitable. I will take two examples, milk and potatoes. In the proposals put forward in the White Paper the standard quantity of milk upon which a minimum price of approximately 5d. in summer and 6d. in winter is fixed is 250,000,000 gallons—
§ Mr. Hopkin
May I complete what I have to say by pointing out that a suggestion has been put forward by Mr. Foster, of the Milk Marketing Board, that the best way in which we could store food for the future would be by in creasing the cow population now by 1,000,000. He suggests that it would be a tremendous help in any emergency. Aeroplanes are not more important than food, and steps are being taken, and quite rightly, to put down plant for the production of aeroplanes on a large scale. In the same way, with a view to the production of food in the future it would be just as safe and certainly just as wise to secure an additional 1,000,000 cows as soon as possible. In the late War agriculture met the situation well. The number of cattle in 1914 was about 12,000,000 and by 1918 12,300,000—
§ Mr. Speaker
I cannot allow the hon. Member to proceed along those lines in a discussion upon this Bill.
§ Mr. Hopkin
Then I will say, in conclusion, that it seems to me that there is a greater responsibility thrown upon the farmers of this country, and that they ought to be encouraged.
§ 6.44 p.m.
§ Mr. Turton
The maintenance of a reserve of foodstuffs and other essential commodities would, I submit, be possible in two places, either in the silos or store houses, or in the soil and on the farm, and it is a curious fact that until the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Hopkin) got up nobody had dealt,_ with the second of those alternatives, although under the Four-Year plan in Germany General Goering has been building up his reserves of essential commodities by 2323 an extension of the growing of foodstuffs in Germany. How far I can proceed with this argument within the Rules of Order is a matter of some doubt, after the speech of the hon. Member for Carmarthen.
It is clear that the Bill includes the farmer as one from whom information may be obtained and who may be requested to store foodstuffs on the farm. That is clear from the definition in Clause 6, but to what extent do the Government intend to ask the farmers of the country to store on the farm the foodstuffs required? There is no great difficulty in asking the farmers to have a carry-over of their wheat in their ricks from the usual time when they sell, in October, until May or June in the following year, and by that time you would have got a reserve of essential commodities at a much lower price than by the method of buying wheat, on which the Government have embarked during the last few months. I welcome the Government's endeavour to make us self-sufficient in time of war by purchasing any commodities that we could not produce in this country. I understand that, apart from the Loch Less monster, there was no possibility of getting whale oil in this country save by Government action, but I am not at all happy about the problems of wheat and sugar. I hope that the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence will spend time in co-ordinating those two branches of the Board of Trade and the Ministry of Agriculture.
Under the Bill, the right hon. Gentleman is, on the one hand, buying stores of wheat; on the other hand, by legislation now in force, producers are told not to produce more than 36,000,000 cwts. of wheat in a year. Again, the Government may have to store potatoes, but if the producer grows another acre of potatoes he has to suffer a penalty. Such regulation no doubt preserves the balance in agriculture, but we want to know how that policy and our Defence policy are to be co-ordinated. The time has come for the Government to appeal to producers to limit the amount that the Government will spend under this Bill by themselves producing more. In the view of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough (Mr. Alexander) agriculture could not fill the gap and the Minister of Agriculture had made that 2324 quite clear; I do not know that the Minister did so. The Minister of Agriculture said at Tring in March that the Government were putting into operation a switch-over to emergency production. I would ask my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence to tell us whether the Bill is a part of the plan that the Minister of Agriculture spoke of at Tring, and if it is not, whether we are to expect another Bill in the near future that will deal with this side of production.
One of the important aspects of this Bill which intimately concern agricultural production is that the Government may take power to buy reserves of fertilisers. At the present time the price of fertilisers is high and, if the Government take such power, they may raise the price still further. I would rather see those fertilisers placed in the land where they will give their results in due season rather than the Government should buy them up and so prevent farmers from using them now. The President of the Board of Trade says that he would use the fertilisers at the outbreak of war in order to achieve increased production, but most of those fertilisers are used on grassland, and take not one year but two years before they give any reward. I suggest that the Government ought not to embark upon a policy which will mean a delay in increasing the production from grassland, especially when there are men like Professor Stapledon going round saying that 16,000,000 acres of grassland are being wasted in this country.
Very dangerous counsel on the subject of feeding was given to the Government by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford University (Sir A. Salter). He said: "Do not bother about feeding stuffs. It is far better to get food, and the feeding stuffs can be bought later. Food and foodstuffs would be interchangeable." I do not know whether the hon. Member would relish a diet of linseed cake. The feeding-stuff problem is very acute. The cattle population has increased tremendously since the last War, and we are far more dependent upon foreign feeding stuffs than we were in 1914. The barley acreage has dropped from 1,500,000 acres to 791,000 acres, and we are importing at the moment large quantities of maize and linseed cake from abroad—far larger quantities than we imported in 1914.
Sir A. Salter
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has quite seized my point, which was that inasmuch as we are assuming that we shall require more imports, we shall very quickly have a margin of food which we shall not need for a time. My suggestion is that we should use it by transferring it to agriculture to fill up the deficiency. We know more or less how much human food we shall need, but we do not know anything like as well what food we should need for our animals. I suggest that we concentrate much more upon the human food which we shall need in any case, and that we should also increase our stock of fertilisers.
§ Mr. Turton
And in the meantime the poor cattle would die. The difficulty which my hon. Friend does not seem to appreciate is you have to feed your stock. He seems to believe that they could survive in the lush pastures near Oxford.
§ Mr. Turton
My hon. Friend talked about storage of food and used as a reason why you should no longer want to store feeding stuffs that in the last War we imported less and less feeding stuffs. The reason was that we had then a large acreage under barley and homegrown foodstuffs. We have not that to-day. In 1914 we were importing some 34,000,000 cwts. of maize, but to-day we are importing 79,000,000 cwts., more than double the quantity. If a war started and interfered with the importation of maize, the whole of English agricultural production would finish at once, unless we do something now to fill the gap. That is why I hope that the Government and the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence will pay special attention to the supply of feeding stuffs in this country.
With most of the speech of the hon. Member for Oxford University I was in entire disagreement, but on one point I thought we might reach some little agreement. That was on the question of secrecy. I am certain that the Government are right and that you should not say where your commodities are stored, when you are going to purchase, and how much you are going to purchase, 2326 nor should you say when or how much you are going to sell. I disagree with Sub-section (3) of Clause 2 of the Bill. But when you have effected your purchases it is wise to let the country know how much you have purchased. The great benefit of the Bill is that it is a reassurance. The country wants to know that it is adequately protected both by reserves of commodities which the Government have wisely bought and by its agricultural production. People want to know those things, and they would be far more reassured than one would be led to expect by the hon. Member for Oxford University. He seems to dislike the Bill because the Government have adopted exactly what he has been pressing upon them to do; the Government have actually adopted his suggestions, and he feels rather puzzled and says: "All those fine words have been wasted."
Sir A. Salter
I said very definitely in two or three words that I welcomed the Bill. I do not know how the hon. Member got the idea that I disliked the Bill or was opposed to it.
§ Mr. Turton
The hon. Member made a speech of rather more words than three, containing criticism and innuendo. His speech was rather in the nature of carping criticism than of welcome and praise. Posterity will read in the OFFICIAL REPORT the words he used and will judge what his attitude was.
We should be told how much the Government have purchased of these commodities, because such information would have a beneficial effect. We always know how much wheat there is in the world. The fact that we do not know how much the Government have in reserve may tend to keep prices up in a time of panic, while seeing how much the Government have purchased would have a tendency to lower prices in time of panic. I believe the information would be valuable. I regret that there are many aspects of the Bill which, by the Rules of Order laid down, it is impossible for me to examine. I regret that the Bill deals only with one very small part of a very important subject. It confers wide powers on the Government that will be available in any emergency, and for that reason I wholeheartedly welcome it and thank the Ministers responsible for 2327 the provision which is being made to keep this country secure in time of emergency or war.
§ 6.59 p.m.
§ Mr. A. Edwards
One item which he thought should be stored by the Government was mentioned by the hon. and gallant Member for Yeovil (Sir G. Davies), and I hope that the Minister will take note of it. He referred to emery. Many hon. Members will agree how necessary emery is. to industry. During the last War I was able to discover a by-product in this country that took the place of emery, and it was very important for the Minister of Munitions that we were able to use that by-product at the time. This matter seems small, but emery could be stored very easily. The hon. Member for Oxford University (Sir A. Salter) spoke about pit-props and urged that the storage of pit-props would relieve the colliery proprietors during a time of war. I hope the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence will consider the possibility of storing as much as possible of vital commodities in advance so that we can have all the tonnage possible available for the conveyance of food.
Hon. Members have been talking about different articles, and I want to talk about pig iron, because it is absolutely vital to the safety of the country. If the Minister will make some calculation of the number of ships that will be required for conveying iron ore in time of war, he will have some idea how much he can contribute to the safety of the country to-day by converting that iron ore into pig iron. If he had lived in the Cleveland district when bombs were being dropped during the last War, he would have realised how vital it seemed to our enemies, at any rate, to put blast furnaces out of commission. If the Minister does not take this matter into consideration, I believe he will be almost as great a menace to the country as an enemy bomber. We have a tremendous capacity to-day, when furnaces are being deliberately put out, for storing immense quantities of pig iron, which does not deteriorate as other commodities do. It seems almost criminal that, while we are talking about reserves of vital commodities, we should be allowing blast furnaces to go out of commission—20 up to the time when I drew the Minister's attention to 2328 it, 10 more since I spoke about it and more going out next week.
I appeal to the Minister to take this a little more seriously. I am profoundly disturbed at the indifference of the Department in thinking that we can allow furnaces to go out of commission week after week, thousands of men being put out of work, when we could occupy them and help the trade of the country at a moment when a depression is threatened. The imports of pig iron in a single month involve the employment of 10,000 men, taking into consideration miners and limestone, and yet it seems to be of no importance to the Department that these men should be thrown out of work, and they talk about storing other things which would be useless if we ran short of iron. The matter has been dealt with on some occasions in a frivolous manner, as if it did not matter, and as though they had not the slightest knowledge of the vital part that iron plays in armaments. The then Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade gave me a perfectly ludicious reply. He said there was not much pig iron used in the production of aeroplane frames. What an answer! As though any of us thought we use aeroplane frames made of cast iron! Everything else that goes into the production of armaments is dependent on iron. Thirty blast furnaces have gone out of commission since December and the Minister appeals to men in my constituency to vary their trade union conditions. He talks about the dilution of labour to help in the production of armaments.
§ Sir T. Inskip
The hon. Member is in error. The suggestion of the consideration of dilution came from the employers at a conference into which the unions went with the employers.
§ Mr. Edwards
I think the pressure must have come from above, because it was thought it would be vitally necessary to have some dilution if we are to catch up with our programme. Is it really good enough that we should be asking one section of men to agree to dilution of labour and throwing another out of employment? It puts a great strain on the patriotism of the workmen. They wonder whether the Department really thinks there is a danger. If there is no real danger, why are we spending these immense sums of money on the production of armaments and in storing vital raw materials, and if 2329 there is a necessity, and the expenditure is justified, what right have we to allow those men at this most important stage of our rearmament plans to be thrown out of work? They are entitled to be considered. I hope the Minister will address himself to this question and consider whether it would not be wise at this stage to be storing up these supplies of pig-iron and releasing as much shipping as necessary to be conveying foodstuffs in the event of war.
There is another matter I should like to mention, though perhaps it is rather late in the day. We should help ourselves and help the steel industry if the Government would reconsider the vital matter of the production of oil from coal. You are going to import oil, using valuable shipping to bring it to this country in time of war, and store it. We have not heard how much it is proposed to store or how long it is going to carry us along, but if we started now the erection of more oil from coal plant it would help the steel industry. Rolling mills are going out and steel plants are going out. It is difficult for people to believe that the Government really think there is a national emergency when they recklessly allow these plants to go out of production. If they considered the question of oil from coal they would find that it would be well worth while erecting another hydrogenation plant. That would give a little stimulus to the steel industry, and now would be the time to get the steel, which six months ago they could not get. I should like the Minister to give a reply and to deal properly, fairly and reasonably with the vital matter of the blast furnaces in my district.
§ 7.10 p.m.
§ Sir Joseph Lamb
I believe that the principle underlying the Bill is accepted by everyone in the House, and outside the House it will breed a great amount of confidence that we shall not again find ourselves in the same position in which we found ourselves on a previous occasion. Reference has been made to a speech by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) in confidence to commissioners and sub-commissioners dealing with the improvement of the conditions of the production of food. The right hon. Gentleman said, "Go home and do all you possibly can to force people to pro- 2330 duce at home, but on no account let the public know what I have told you." Those were very serious words. He knew that, if the public generally knew the position we were in, it would have caused a panic with which it would have been very difficult for the Government of the day to cope. I believe this Bill will give confidence to the public, and I accept it on that ground. It is to do two things— to regulate action that has already been taken with regard to certain commodities, and to regulate action that may be taken in future. But there are two points that I should like to put to the Minister. In Clause 2, the word "trader" appears. The definition shows that "trader" includes producer. I should like to know whether the producer at home is to be in entirely the same category, and is to have the same opportunities as the producer abroad.
The storage of food is very different from the storage of any other commodity, because food is perishable and cannot be stored indefinitely. This is recognised in the Bill, because it refers to disposals from time to time which are only to take place after other legislation has been passed. We cannot say what form that legislation will take, but you will have to be careful when you are going to make these dispersals of stocks, and you will have to see that very few people know when they are taking place, because it will have a disastrous effect upon prices if there is public knowledge as to when large sales are to take place. Prices depend upon supply and demand and, if you have fluctuation in supply and demand, you will have fluctuation in prices. That will be disastrous both for producer and consumer. I am not one of those who ask for high prices, which I believe cause, and have caused, hardship upon consumers, and in the long run they do not do the producer any good. High prices for a short time followed by low prices would be very disastrous. Neither do I ask for low prices, which might occur if you had a very large distribution of stocks at a particular time, and which would bring prices down disastrously to the producer. The consumer might have some sort of temporary advantage from low prices, but even in his interest low prices are not desirable. It is prices at a reasonably steady level that are to be desired for all. I should like an assurance that great care will be taken with regard to the disposal 2331 of these stocks to see that it has not a disastrous effect upon prices, which would affect not only producers but consumers.
§ 7.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Kingsley Griffith
I want to say a few words in support of the plea which has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Middlesbrough (Mr. Edwards). He has done great service in calling attention to this matter, and I want to reinforce as far as I can the arguments he has put forward. The fault in this Bill appears to lie in a few extra words in the Schedule. If it had said:Any commodity which in the opinion of the Board of Trade may be required as food for man, forage for animals or fertiliser for land, and any raw material,it would have been good. But the extra words:from which such commodity could be producedlimit the raw materials to such raw materials as are employed in producing the articles which have been mentioned before. That, to my mind, is an entirely unnecessary limitation. Even in time of war, man does not live by bread alone, and, indeed, if I may give another quotation:Iron, cold iron, is the master of men all.Iron then becomes one of the most essential of commodities. The Minister has given us his own reason for the limitation which he has put upon himself. Ministers are not always fond of limiting their powers, and I wish my right hon. Friend had not done so in this case. His reason was that he feared that, if he had cast his net wider, the trades that might be affected would have been in some way disturbed, that they would not have known what would be the effect of the Government's action in accumulating reserves. My answer to that is that he himself has grappled with the difficulty in Sub-section (3) of Clause 2, where he has provided his own precautions against accumulated stores being let out on the market so as to disorganise it. He has taken precautions with regard to the commodities which are included in the Schedule, and I should have thought that this provision would have been equally effective if it were applied to other commodities, and that, in view of the assurance that these precautions were being 2332 taken by the Minister, there would not have been any disorganisation of trade.
May I call attention to the other side of the question? Disorganisation would be caused by an industry expecting a purchase which the Government never intended to make.
§ Mr. Griffith
If the right hon. Gentleman says that this is a purchase which the Government never intends to make, I am extremely surprised to see the provision. I am not asking that the Minister should take powers with regard to improbable commodities which would not be required in time of war, and he might if he likes qualify the words "raw material" by some other words, such as:raw material of such a nature as to be essential in time of war.He need not have tied himself down as strictly as he has done. If he did that, there would be no disorganisation at all. Has he had any representations from the trade that they are apprehensive that they might be included in the Bill, or that the use of words wide enough to include pig iron would involve disorganisation? If he has not, I should have thought that the only argument he used would fall to the ground. Naturally, my hon. Friend and I are keen on this matter from the point of view of our constituencies. I do not attempt to deny that; if the case of Middlesbrough were not represented by us, it would be unrepresented in this Debate. But there is at the same time a real national interest in this matter. We have already seen, in the last few months, a time at which, oddly enough, it was very hard to get essential products of this kind. Then the situation changed. I should have thought that if the Government, in a reasonable spirit and showing proper foresight, accumulated such stocks as might reasonably be thought necessary, they would be able to ease out these fluctuations in the market, and that, so far from having any disturbing effect, it would have a calming and soothing effect upon trade. Certainly a crisis like the temporary crisis which occurred a little time ago, when it was hard for people to get materials that they wanted, would not occur at what might be a disastrous moment in time of war. Therefore, I hope that the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence, or whoever replies to the Debate, will try to give my 2333 hon. Friend the Member for East Middlesbrough a rather more sufficient and detailed answer on this particular product than we have so far received.
§ 7.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Lewis
I hope that the two right hon. Gentlemen concerned will not think me discourteous if I begin with this observation: If a company trading for gain were to be formed, the chairman of directors of which was my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence, the managing director my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, and the other directors officials of the Board of Trade; if that company were to issue a prospectus which stated that it proposed to trade on a large scale in any commodity which in their opinion might be required as food for man, forage for animals, or fertiliser for land, and if I were invited to take shares in that company, I should decline emphatically. I should decline for this very simple reason, that I should expect to lose a considerable portion of any money that I put into the company. I make that observation, not desiring in any way to disparage the great qualities which have brought the two right hon. Gentlemen to the very important positions which they now hold, but because they would be engaging on a very large scale in very complicated and difficult operations for which they were quite unqualified by any previous experience that they had had. To some extent, under the provisions of this Bill, that is a risk which the taxpayer will have to run in so far as the Government engage in large purchases of these various commodities.
There is a further objection, to which the President of the Board of Trade has himself called attention, namely, that, in so far as these purchases are made, there is bound to be considerable dislocation in the trades concerned. Those who were in the House when the President of the Board of Trade made his speech may remember that I ventured to make an interjection with regard to Sub-section (3) of Clause 2, asking my right hon. Friend why it should be thought necessary for the greatest secrecy to be observed before purchases were made, and the greatest publicity to be observed before sales were made. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough (Mr. Alexander) that the answer which the President then gave could not be con- 2334 sidered adequate. I hope he will reconsider that Sub-section. I cannot help thinking that the Government are under a misapprehension—that, having been afraid that the House might think they were asking for very wide powers and might desire to limit them, they have put in that Sub-section in order to reassure the House. I think it would be very much better out of the Bill. If we are to give the Government authority to make purchases now, let us also give them now authority to sell these commodities when it seems wise to do so. I can imagine nothing more hampering to them in endeavouring to dispose of any stocks they may have than the fierce publicity which will be caused by their coming to this House and asking for special powers to dispose of those stocks. I hope that perhaps at a later stage the Government may see fit to strike that Sub-section out.
Having ventured to call attention to certain dangers which, as I see it, are inherent in the Bill, I should like now to say that I agree with others who have already spoken that in fact such powers are necessary; but I hope very much that they will be regarded as powers to be kept in reserve. In my view, the most important power given in the Bill is the power given in Sub-section (1) of Clause 2, by which the Government may enter into arrangements with traders in the different trades concerned to assist those traders to increase their storage capacity and to increase the stocks which they hold. I feel that that is much the better plan for dealing with this difficulty. When I say that I regard it as necessary that the Government should be given these powers to purchase, I have in mind the fact that this will give the Government a bargaining weapon of great force. If they have a difficulty in getting any particular industry to assist them on reasonable terms, they can turn round and say, "If you will not do it, we will do it ourselves." From that point of view I think the powers are desirable, but I hope very much that they will only be used as a last resort.
May I give an example to explain what I mean? Supposing that one of us desired to enter into some big transaction in foodstuffs, and we had the opportunity of having that transaction carried out for us by someone like the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough or the hon. 2335 Member for Harrow (Sir I. Salmon), with the great trading organisations which they have behind them and with which they are in daily contact; and that on the other hand we were offered, as an alternative, the services of the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence or the President of the Board of Trade; although, in spite of the fact that, having regard to the rate of remuneration, it was considered suitable for Secretaries of State, the latter might in the first instance be the cheaper method, I venture to suggest that the employment of gentlemen connected with these great trading organisations would probably in the long run be more advantageous.
I think it is only fair to recall to the House, when these comparisons are made, that the Government admitted that frankly, and that, in the three instances in which we have already made these purchases, we have made the fullest use of those who, we know, know much more about the matter than we do ourselves.
§ Mr. Lewis
I submit that that is not at all a fair answer. I listened closely to my right hon. Friend, and I did not understand him to say that he had made arrangements whereby these various expert persons, in the course of their business, should increase their stocks and storage capacity, but that he had merely employed them as agents to carry out his wishes. That is a very different thing. I hope very much that the method of encouraging the trade themselves to do these things, with Government assistance, will be followed, rather than the direct method of purchase by the Government. To sum up that point, I would say that, if stocks are to be accumulated, it is better that they should be accumulated in the hands of the various trades concerned, and that only as a last resort should they be accumulated in the hands of the Government themselves. When my right hon. Friend says, as he did in his speech, that everyone is agreed that the Government should accumulate stocks, I think he makes a mistake. What everyone is agreed about is that the country should accumulate stocks, which is not at all the same thing.
There are one or two minor points on which I should like to touch very briefly. Power is taken to require returns, and 2336 obviously that is an essential feature of the Bill. The returns are very easy to ask for, but often very troublesome to make, and I hope we shall have some assurance from the Government that this power to seek returns will not be unreasonably used and that it will be confined to those cases where substantial stocks are normally held by the traders concerned. With regard to the Schedule, there has been a certain amount of criticism that the Schedule is not wide enough, and it has been argued that it should include other things besides the articles therein prescribed. I do not share that view. I agree with the President of the Board of Trade that on wider grounds it is most desirable to limit the Schedule as he has limited it, but now that he has limited it I would have liked him to have given it to us in greater detail. If hon. Members read the Schedule carefully, they will see that a prolonged list of articles could come under it, and I suggest that on the ground that it is always better for Parliament to settle these things where possible, and not to leave it for subsequent legislation to do, it would be better for these articles to be named in the Schedule.
There is only one observation that I want to make on the subject of the purchases already made. I was somewhat puzzled by the reference of the right hon. Gentleman to the question of wheat. I understood him to say that the Government had arranged to purchase certain quantities of wheat through certain firms which he named, and that they have further arranged with those firms that they were still to hold stocks as large as they would have done without taking into consideration the Government stocks. Are we to understand, therefore, that they have made arrangements with those firms for their storage capacity to be increased? If not, I do not see how the Government can accomplish all that they hope to accomplish. Take, for example, a miller who has a storage capacity which is often partly or largely empty, but which is there because at certain times the miller thinks it wise that it should be full. If you are going to occupy part of that storage capacity by Government stores, you will limit that miller's opportunity for carrying the stocks which under certain circumstances he might himself carry, and I should like some definite answer to the question whether the storage facilities of those firms which have undertaken this 2337 wheat business on behalf of the Government have or have not been increased.
In conclusion, I would only say that, obviously, the Bill, important though it is, cannot be regarded as more than offering a mitigation of our difficulties in the event of war. There are other methods— I will not attempt to put them in their relative importance—by which the Government could help us to face the danger which may be ahead of us, and which seems all too near, such as measures of rearmament, encouragement of agriculture, encouragement of the Mercantile Marine, and consequent encouragement of shipbuilding. Those are matters which for the most part lie outside the purview of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade, but they do not lie outside the purview of the Government, and I hope the Government will not regard this Bill as more than one part, and not even a very large part, of their task in endeavouring to make us, as far as human foresight can, safe in the event of our being attacked.
§ 7.35 P.m.
§ Mr. Sexton
I take it that this Bill is part of the Government's preparations for feeding the nation in the event of war. I know that the hon. Member for West Middlesbrough (Mr. K. Griffith) has gone outside of that in discussing the question of pig iron, but I am more concerned with the pig than with the iron, so that I shall direct my attention mainly to the food part of this Bill. The supply of food is as essential to defence as is the supply of force. It is fundamental if we are attacked that not only the men in the Services but the civilians too should be fed, because I can imagine the unrest which would be caused by the fear of famine. It nearly arose during the last War. In that War I was on the food control committee for my district, and I know how near we were sometimes to not being able to supply the people with any food at all. If this Bill does, as I believe it does, something which will guarantee stocks of supplies and equitable shares for all the people in the country) and if it does something towards controlling prices and stopping rampant profiteering, I believe the Bill is a good Bill. In the last War the Government instituted a system of food control, but it took such a long time to fructify that for 18 months of that food control food 2338 supplies, food prices, and food distribution in this country were in a state of chaos. Even after the Food Control Supply Committee had been set up, owing to the long delay in the operation of that food control, it was only just beginning to make itself felt towards the end of the War.
I have in my hand a very important and a very informative document which has been issued, namely, the Food Defence Plans Department's report, and may I congratulate the authors of that report on the excellent way in which they have done their work? I have read the report through with very great interest. It deals largely with the question of food supplies, and in my opinion every Member of the House of Commons ought to read it. In this report we are not told much about the storage of food envisaged in this Bill, because Sir Ernest Gowers has been making an exhaustive inquiry into the whole matter and the work has been handed over to the Food Defence Plans Department; hence, I take it, this Bill that we now have before us. The Bill has two purposes, first, to obtain such information as is possible; secondly, to create reserves in all these essential commodities. In order to obtain the information, you must, according to the terms of the Bill, go to the traders, and some doubt has been expressed as to the work thus imposed upon the traders. The Bill will compel them to give information—not, in my opinion, that that was necessary, because on page 28 of the report which I have mentioned it says:Trade associations and individual traders in every branch of the food trades have co-operated to the fullest possible extent in these inquiries. The Department has no power to compel traders to make returns either of the stocks they hold or of any other matter connected with their business; nevertheless in several of the inquiries 95 per cent. and sometimes even 100 per cent. of the public authorities and firms to whom questionnaires were sent have responded.I would like to pay a tribute here to those traders and associations who have so nobly assisted without compulsion, and now that they are to be compelled I feel sure that they will still render all possible assistance. Not only has information to be obtained from the traders relating to the stocks that they hold, the output capacity of manufacturing plants, and the storage space available, but this Bill pro- 2339 vides that the Government shall create reserves, and for this purpose it induces the traders to increase their own stores and to improve their storage, and it enables the Government to purchase stocks to be held by the Board of Trade. If the Bill passes and these two main parts of the Bill are really carried out, I believe we shall have taken a very valuable step forward against the time of danger, if it should ever come to this country.
Now for one or two slight criticisms of the Bill itself. In Clause 2, Sub-section (1), it talks about commodities which are "held by him," that is, the trader, and in Subsection (3) it talks about commodities which are "held by them," meaning the Board of Trade. I should like to know, after you have induced the trader to augment the stocks "held by him," what his position is in periods of deterioration. Will he receive from the Board compensation for loss? I emphasise the point, because Sub-section (1) emphasises the stocks "held by him," and Sub-section (3) emphasises the stocks "held by them," the Board of Trade. As regards Sub-section (3), doubt has been expressed about the unloading of the existing superfluous stocks. Surely, if we can trust the buyers to buy in secret, we should be able, without this Sub-section at all, to trust the sellers to sell in secret so that the Government will not lose anything by that.
One slight quibble, shall I say? I find no interpretation of "fertiliser" given, yet the word "fertiliser" is mentioned in the Schedule. Some hon. Members have said, "Extend the Schedule," others have said, "Limit it further," and still others have said, "Leave it as it is." I would have liked to have seen it extended to include many other essential commodities known to the Board of Trade and the Government. I think that if the list had been made long enough and these other things had been included now, it would have saved our having to include them later on. Speaking for myself, I welcome this endeavour. Some people say that it is belated, but I do not mind that. Some people say that the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence is a dreamer of Israel, but I believe that he is the practical man who will eventually find corn in Egypt.
§ 7.44 P.m.
Mr. V. Adams
The hon. Member for Barnard Castle (Mr. Sexton) courageously expressed a preference for pigs over iron. I wish to commend to the attention of the Government the two matters of the extraction of oil from coal and the increase of our supplies of potential foodstuffs. These are two matters which have already been elaborated, and I will not, therefore, speak of them in detail. In his most agreeable speech my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Yeovil (Sir G. Davies) declared that in his view the "fear-to-treaders" had been proved wiser than the "rush-iners." No doubt that is a doctrine which is fostered in the Whips' Office, which has been by no means enriched by the resignation of the hon. and gallant Member for Yeovil. But if, on this matter, some of us rushed in, I do not think we need feel any regret for having helped to cause the Government to move. What else are we elected to do except to rush in with arguments and other legitimate means of pressure? Indeed, I would say that the measures which the Government have taken and are taking are, at least partly, due to those external goads by which the hon. Member for Oxford University (Sir A. Salter) has been pricking and stimulating the Government ever since he became a Member of this House.
As one who has felt anxiety about food storage I welcome the Bill. Frankly, I am grateful for it. If I may borrow a word from the speech of the hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. O. Evans), I am glad that we have succeeded in so far "stampeding" the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence. I recognise that the purchases had to be made secretly in order to prevent the price rising and to avoid warning a possible enemy. To-day in answering the question which I put to him, the President of the Board of Trade did not deal with the estimated cost. But the cost is, I venture to say, of fundamental importance to the whole scheme. It governs the possibility of food storage. In his Budget statement on 26th April, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said:The Government decided early this year that at the right moment they would buy sufficient supplies of wheat, whale oil and sugar to ensure that the stocks in this country shall be maintained at a level sufficient for the needs of the civil population during the early months of an emergency.2341 A little later, the right hon. Gentleman said:Apart from these transactions, some additional provision is likely to be needed during the year for other purchases where secrecy is less essential, and also for Air-Raid Precautions. Weighing these facts, and remembering at the same time the possibility that there may be savings for me on the Civil Estimates as a whole, I reached the conclusion that I must provide the sum of £10,000,000 as a margin for Civil Supplementary Estimates."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th April, 1938; col. 51, Vol. 335.]The House will observe that the £10,000,000 estimate which I have cited covers items other than food storage. Moreover, it covers not only the food to be purchased but the places in which it is to be stored. Yet those of us who have urged the necessity of storage have been met all the time with charges of extravagance.
The technique of criticism employed against those of us who have pushed this matter has been to set up in the air and then to destroy proposals which have never been made. That is an old trick of debate but hardly worthy of future Ministers. On 9th February the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lennox-Boyd)—to whom I have given notice of my intentions to-night— distinguished himself by saying:We consume in this country every year from £1,100,000,000 to £1,200,000,000 worth of foodstuffs, and of this £600,000,000 worth is imported. To put on one side two years' supply of imports would involve an expenditure of £1,200,000 a year. Is it seriously suggested that the case has been made out for regarding food storage as such an essential part of the defence weapon as to justify expenditure on that scale beside which the annual expenditure on all the defence services dwindles in comparison?Speaking of wheat, the hon. Member said:Assuming you wanted to find storage capacity for 6,000,000 tons, not an excessive requirement, you would be called upon to find a further £30,000,000 for the construction of silos in excess of the capacity existing today, and that would bring the total expenditure in one year—provided the buildings could be erected in a year—on the storage of wheat alone up to £100,000,000."— [OFFICIAL RF.PORT, 9th February, 1938; cols. 1101–2, Vol. 331.]By way of peroration to this shattering speech the hon. Member found it necessary to answer the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Parker) by quoting the retort of Charles II to the Duke of York: 2342My guard. Brother James, is that no one would kill me to make you King.We all know how, hardly a week later, someone else was butchered to make a Roman holiday. And the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire was at once rewarded for his attacks on the policy which the Government were, in fact, pursuing in secret by being crowned, if not king, at least Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour. In the last seven years I have seen strange political developments but none more strange than this.
I regret one detail in the scheme disclosed by the President of the Board of Trade. He said that wheat was not to be stored inland. I respectfully submit to the Government that their object ought to be the maximum condition of safety. It is little use having a store of food, however copious, unless it is as safe as we can humanly make it. When we consider the original estimates of the present Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour, I feel that the Government might have spared a little more money to secure that absolute safety. Perhaps the Government, while professing to store wheat on the West Coast, will secretly sink it below the soil of Mid-Bedfordshire.
I welcome the Bill because it is a vital addition to what are called our passive defences. It removes the likelihood of our being paralysed by starvation. It makes us a far more formidable factor in any system of that collective security which the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire would like to injure, but by support of which the National Government helped at the last General Election to make their triumph so resounding. This scheme which is now to be translated by legislation into fact will, if the emergency arises, liberate our Navy to concentrate upon the fleet of the foe and to blockade the coasts of the aggressor. We shall not have to allocate so much of the Royal Navy for convoying essential food supplies from abroad. To put the matter quite bluntly, Germany will not have such an easy time, if and when she causes a breach of the peace. No measure could have my more hearty support. It has, moreover, been blessed by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough (Mr. Alexander). But because, no doubt, of its alleged or supposed inadequacy, ineffectiveness and superfluity, I expect to 2343 see the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour emerging from his room later to-night and dividing the House against that Government of which he is so outstanding an ornament.
§ 7.54 P.m.
§ Mr. James Griffiths
I take this opportunity of expressing two general sentiments about this matter which I share with many hon. Members. Sitting here during yesterday's Debate a great many of us felt what a mad world this was in which we found ourselves, and what a commentary upon our civilisation was the discussion of such subjects as we have been discussing for the last few days. Last night we spent several hours in the discussion of protection against onslaughts not from the savages of the world, but by the civilised peoples of the world upon each other. Mankind has come to a strange pass when we are preparing plans to go into the bowels of the earth for protection against our own kind.
With regard to the Bill, I offer one general observation. As a lifelong Socialist I have been pleased to hear the approval with which it has been received. I think the only exception was the speech of the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Lewis) and I could see that there was a severe struggle between the hon. Member's loyalty to the Government and his support of the principles of private enterprise. I welcome the Bill because in it the Government are taking action to protect us in time of emergency against what we assume will be the complete breakdown of the system of private enterprise. I am glad that even the National Government, even an anti-Socialist like the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence realise that in a time of emergency the food of the nation cannot be left to private individuals intent upon private profit, but that it is the duty of the State to look after its people. The Bill will enable the Government to store certain essential commodities, and the most important is food.
My interest in this matter arises from the fact that I represent Llanelly, which produces the raw material for canning, and canning has become the most efficient way of storing foodstuffs. There have been, and still are, objections on the part of some people to canned food, but when we face the problem of storage we have to ask ourselves what is the most 2344 efficient method, and in considering that question we must take into account the remarkable increase in the consumption of canned food both in this country and throughout the world. Some people connected with the tin-plate industry in my town have given me figures which show that the consumption of canned food in this country increased from 10,000,000 cwts. in 1930 to over 15,000,000 cwts. in 1935, and a remarkable thing is that the bulk of the increase was in the consumption of canned foodstuffs grown in this country. In the same period the amount of canned foodstuffs produced in this country increased from just under 2,000,000 cwts. to over 5,000,000 cwts. and the largest increase of all—an increase from 314,000 cwts. in 1930 to 1,250,000 cwts. in 1935—has been in the canning of home-produced vegetables.
I know this aspect of the problem has received consideration, and I do not emphasise it more than to say that the tin-plate industry to-day is working at less than 40 per cent. of its capacity. If it were possible in connection with food storage to increase the production of canned foodstuff it would bring a measure of relief to people in my division and it is amazing how people who have been unemployed for a: long time welcome work, whatever the reason for that work may be. An extension of this industry would give more work to the people in the districts of West Wales where tin-plate is manufactured and to that degree would be welcome.
The efficiency of canning processes has developed enormously. I am told that deterioration in canned foodstuffs that have been kept for a year is only at the rate of 1 per cent., and at the end of two years it is only 5 per cent. In our own country we can produce plenty of vegetables. Take my own county of Carmarthen. It has an agricultural part, represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Hopkin), in which there are two or three fine fertile valleys where vegetables could be produced, and there is also the estuary of the river, and I am told that the sandy soil along that estuary is the best in the country for the production of some kinds of vegetables. In that county there are the two kinds of soil required for growing vegetables, and in Llanelly tinplate is produced. Here is the natural home for 2345 the production and canning of such foodstuffs as would make us doubly sure of not being starved out in time of emergency. I know that this is under the serious consideration of those responsible, and I only mention it in order to suggest that it should be given, if possible, increased consideration.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Middlesbrough (Mr. Edwards) has spoken about oil from coal. The right hon. Gentleman must surely know that in this matter we are very vulnerable, and it is most regrettable that before this Bill came forward we have not had an opportunity of discussing the Falmouth Report. I am profoundly dissatisfied with that report. It takes far too narrow a view. We are spending enormous sums in purchasing what is perhaps the most essential product of all. There is one enemy which is being named as our enemy. Anti-Fascist as I am, I frankly deplore this practice of naming the enemy; we are still on friendly terms with that country, and we sent over the Under-Secretary to the Home Office to see the precautions they are taking against our aeroplanes. In the country which is being named as the enemy, they, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, at any rate are not going to rely on importing the oil they need for the bombers that they will send over. They are spending money on producing oil from lignite coal, and if German engineers can get oil out of lignite coal, I do not think British engineers are so tenth-rate as to fail to get oil out of the first-rate coal we have in this country. The Falmouth Committee has been a sheer waste of time. It has done nothing to add to what we know of the problem. I have a growing conviction that behind this objection to developing our own oil from our coal resources is the vested interest of the oil concerns. It may prove not only a tragedy but a crime if this country has to remain dependent on imported oil because of the vested oil interests.
The hon. Member for Oxford University (Sir A. Salter) made an interesting speech this evening. One of his suggestions was that the workers in this country might be persuaded to store a month's supply of food. I do not think there is any worker in this country who would object to having a month's store of food in his house. What they object to is that on the day before 2346 pay-day there is no food at all in the house. If that plan is to be adopted, somebody must find the money to buy a month's store of food for the large mass of poorly-paid employed workers and all the unemployed workers. If that suggestion is to be adopted, I hope the Government will persuade the employers to give their workers a month's pay in advance. Another suggestion was that pit props might be stored. I hope that is done. I have very unhappy recollections of using some British timber and trying to make something like a decent pit prop of the kind of wood that was sold in the last War. I am convinced that there were many accidents in the pits because we did not have wood that could be suitably used for the purpose. There are hundreds of misused and unused pit shafts and pit levels in this country. Before you talk of building store houses that will be completely useless at the end of your emergency, I suggest you might use some of these.
After this Bill, I hope the Government will bring in another Bill. There is first the problem to be tackled of making sure that we have the food when the emergency comes, but there is the second problem of making sure that when the emergency comes the food will be fairly distributed. The only thing that will save the country then is Socialism, State control, and seeing that we deal with people strictly in accordance with their service to the State. Miners, steel workers and others on whose services the nation will vitally depend, and who need good food if they are to be able to perform these services, should have consideration first. I dare say there is a good deal of food stored already in the West End, but it is not on the people in the West End but the people in the mining districts and similar areas on whom the nation will principally rely. I hope, therefore, that there will be another Bill to provide for a decent system of distribution of food. There will have to be rationing, and if there are suggestions of class treatment in time of national emergency the Government who stand for it will be running grave risks of trouble.
§ 8.10 p.m.
§ Sir T. Inskip
This Bill has been welcomed by every speaker this evening. It is true that some hon. Members have thrown in a word or two of criticism for 2347 what they regarded as past inaction, but that has not prevented any hon. Member from expressing satisfaction at the introduction of this Bill. I should like to express on behalf of my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade and myself our gratitude for the welcome which the Bill has received. It will be a very great advantage to have this Bill on the Statute Book in case of future operations in respect of food storage. I well remember, for it is only a few months ago, that when we were considering the steps that should be taken to initiate a series of purchases of food we had doubts and anxieties as to the methods that should be pursued, and if it had not been for the willing co-operation of the traders whom we took into our confidence, and who so well justified our confidence in them, we should not have been able to take those steps which were described by the hon. Member for Oxford University (Sir A. Salter) as illegal. In the true sense of the word, they were not illegal; they were unauthorised, and we want an Indemnity Bill to justify the action we took. There is another thing that I think I ought to say to hon. Members. That is that, although some hon. Members were certainly aware of the action being taken in connection with purchases of food during that period, not a single question was addressed to me asking what had happened. That was, if I may respectfully say so, a great help to me and my right hon. Friend, and a striking example of the public spirit which pervades all parts of this House, because nothing would have been easier than to put me and my right hon. Friend in a Parliamentary difficulty during that period.
§ Sir T. Inskip
If the hon. Member would have put me in that difficulty he would not have an opportunity to share the knowledge with other hon. Members. I draw a distinction between hon. Members.
§ Sir T. Inskip
It is possible for action of this sort to be taken without authority with the approval of the Whole House, when the facts are stated. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough 2348 (Mr. Alexander) started on rather a depressing note when he referred to this Bill as an indication, which nobody could but regret to observe, that the period of emergency had been reached. I do not quite accept that statement, any more than I would accept the statement that when I pay my life assurance premium I am sentenced to death on the spot. This is simply a proper insurance. It is quite true that we should not have considered it had it not been for the disturbed state of Europe; but that does not in the least indicate any nearer approach to the emergency which I hope events have justified us in thinking is not so near as some of us have thought in the recent times.
I should like to express agreement with the statement of the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Parker) that the action indicated by the Government in this Bill has had a good effect in other countries. I think it has been somewhat proved to observers of events that this country is intending not merely to arm itself with lethal weapons, but it is determined to prepare as well for emergency, even if the emergency may never overtake us. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Oxford University was inclined, I think, to twit me as having responded to suggestions he had made.
§ Sir T. Inskip
The hon. Member is too modest to say it. Nevertheless it crept out. I am quite prepared to give the hon. Gentleman the full credit for anything that I did or my right hon. Friend did a few weeks ago. As long as we may have the Bill the hon. Gentleman may have all the credit for it. I feel justified in making this observation when he claims that it was only the efforts of himself which drove us into action. I am justified in stating the fact that the steps that were necessary to lay the foundation for all our action were taken on 25th January, 1937, and we have built upon the action which was then taken. If I remember rightly the hon. Gentleman the Member for Oxford University entered this House only in the succeeding month of February, 1937.
Sir A. Salter
I not only did not say it, but I did not for a moment think of my- 2349 self as having been the origin of this movement. In fact I said clearly in the course of my speech that the agitation had proceeded for years before even the Food (Defence Plans) Department was established, thereby quite clearly implying, as I meant to, that others had advocated this policy long before J was myself in this House.
§ Sir T. Inskip
The hon. Gentleman, as well as the hon. Gentleman the Member for Cardigan (Mr. D. O. Evans) paid me a compliment. They both described me as a man of ideas rather than of action. On the whole, I should suppose that brain represents an important part of the anatomy of man, and it is no small compliment to be told that ideas predominate in my make-up. Coming from the Member of a party to which the late Lord Haldane belonged, who said that the great necessity of the time was more thinking, I should have thought that that would not be regarded as a disqualification for the part I occupy in connection with food planning. A good deal has been said as to the respective parts which my right hon. Friend and I are expected to play in this matter. It is a misconception of my position if any hon. Member thinks that I represent an executive Department. That is not the case. The idea underlying the duties which I try to perform is that there shall be co-ordination of the different ideas which are necessary in order to devise a policy which is necessarily carried out by different Departments. Sometimes it is the Board of Trade, sometimes it is the Defence Departments, and sometimes it is the Ministry of Transport, but the plan has necessarily to be devised, under our complicated modern system, in a Department which is in touch with all other Departments, and that is the part which my Department plays in this matter. The action which was taken in March and April of this year in connection with the purchases shows a degree of co-ordination which is satisfactory, I hope, to hon. Members who are now observing the fruits of it in this Debate.
§ Sir J. Lamb
Was it the intention of my right hon. Friend to leave out the Ministry of Agriculture?
§ Sir T. Inskip
No, but I cannot recite all the Ministries. I would certainly include the Ministry of Agriculture. I would say, in answer to my hon. Friend, as he has mentioned the Ministry of Agriculture, that not only has the Ministry of Transport been associated with the consideration of the food storage problem, but the Ministry of Agriculture also, and from the beginning a representative of that Ministry has always been present at our councils. Criticism has been made of the limited scope of the Bill. I would remind the House of the different commodities which have been pressed upon the Government as suitable to be included within the Bill—lead, copper, pig iron, emery and pit props. These represent only a few of the commodities which hon. Members might like to see stored. With the exception of pit props, however, there is no difficulty at all in making the necessary provision by way of storage where that is thought to be right. It is not necessary to have this Bill in order to enable the Defence Departments to be furnished with the materials which they want for the defence purposes. In fact, as has often been stated, considerable reserves of raw materials, sometimes of those commodities which are only wanted in small quantities though of great importance, have been made.
All of the articles which I have mentioned have come under the consideration of the Government, and I do not want to say anything as to the decision which has been made for storing them. As far as pig iron is concerned, the announcement was made that the Government had decided that it was not necessary. I listened with a great deal of sympathy to the hon. Gentleman the Member for East Middlesbrough (Mr. Edwards) as to the position of the blast furnaces in his constituency and the desirability of having an adequate supply of pig iron. But I find—it has been ascertained for the purpose of the decision—that there is an enormous quantity of pig iron and scrap at the blast furnaces as well as in the steel works. It must be a question of degree as to what additional quantity of pig iron ought to be stored. So far as I and my duties are concerned, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the matter, having been reviewed on the state of the facts as they now exist, will not be lost sight of. The position will be watched. The hon. Gentleman appeals to me on the ground of 2351 the employment of labour. This is a consideration which, although I should be very glad to entertain it and do entertain it, is primarily the responsibility of another Ministry.
§ Mr. Edwards
The Minister will realise that six months ago the whole of the industry was not producing enough to meet ordinary demands under normal conditions. I claim that, if under ordinary conditions they cannot possibly cope with that demand, should war begin with no more than the 100,000 tons with which they began the last War, they could not possibly catch up.
§ Sir T. Inskip
I think I appreciate the nature of the arguments—and I do not say for a moment that there are not arguments in favour of a policy of storage of pig iron—but it must be understood by the hon. Gentleman that these arguments have been well weighed, and the reasons against the expenditure of a considerable sum on storage of a further supply have been found to be, in present circumstances, on the whole against the decision which the hon. Gentleman desires.
§ Sir T. Inskip
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough quite rightly said that there would be a great temptation to press for the storage of a great many commodities by the Government if the scope of the Schedule of the Bill was enlarged. I take that view and it is the view on which my right hon. Friend has had the Bill drafted.
A good deal has been said by hon. Members as to the keeping of stocks in other forms than under this Bill. Hon. Members must not suppose that if they were publicly informed of the sum that has so far been expended on the purchase of stocks they would thereby be able to judge the volume of stocks which have been created, or for which provision has been made. The Bill empowers action to be taken in the way of financing stocks to be kept by traders. Incidentally, one hon. Member asked me how we could be sure that those stocks having been financed, would be kept up. The answer is, that the financial arrangements will include an assurance and condition to make it quite certain that the stocks will be maintained. That point has not been overlooked, and arrangements will be made for that purpose.
2352 I want to illustrate one very important way by which we add to the volume of the stocks. I will give an illustration in regard to sugar. The stocks of sugar in each year fall consistently from the highest point down to the lowest point at the same period of the year. If hon. Members will look at the graph of the stocks of sugar in this country they will see that it is like a sharp V. There need be no anxiety when the stocks of sugar are at their highest point. The obvious duty is to see, if possible, that they never get as low as they normally do at the lowest period of the V. This matter was discussed with the firm that is responsible for far the largest normal supply of sugar in this country, and in response to a suggestion that I made to Messrs. Tate and Lyle they undertook, at no charge to the Government but solely at their own charge, to flatten out the lowest point of the V in such a way as to ensure the maintenance of a very much larger volume of sugar at that period of the year.
The maintenance of stocks in this way by the traders is an important supplement to the normal stocks which business men hold for their own ordinary purposes, and to the stocks which the Government may ultimately finance or purchase for themselves. It would be a complete mistake to think of the volume of our resources of food as consisting only of those which the Government purchases. You have to add to those purchases the normal stocks and the stocks which traders at the suggestion of and in cooperation with the Government are keeping in addition to the normal supplies.
The hon. Member for Oxford University has on more than one occasion asked, if I understood him aright, for the equivalent of a year's supply of wheat. I think he has pointed out, what no doubt is well worth consideration, that if we release tonnage which is usually employed to bring one commodity, by storing a large quantity of that commodity, we have available tonnage for other commodities, because owing to the construction of our modern ships the tonnage is interchangeable. I agree on that point. No doubt the hon. Member will include the normal stocks which are held by the traders as well as the stocks that are purchased by the Government in his calculation of always ensuring a year's supply. At any rate that is how I understood him, but whether I understood him aright or not. 2353 in determining a year's supply I suggest to the House, as I have suggested before, that it must be a matter of degree to calculate what additions should be made to the normal stocks, and it is impossible to contemplate anything like such a large purchase as a year's supply of stocks either in wheat or any other commodity.
Sir A. Salter
I did not suggest that we should have a year's supply of wheat. What I did suggest, in order to give the order of magnitude of additional stocks that I should like to be maintained, was that additional stocks beyond the normal ones of the trade should be acquired of wheat, flour, canned goods, sugar and fats, which together should be equivalent to a year's wheat consumption.
§ Sir T. Inskip
I think I understood the hon. Member, and that was what I intended to indicate as representing his argument. The Government have to take into account all the considerations mentioned by my right hon. Friend in intro-during the Bill, and take care that the stocks are adequate for the circumstances for which they are intended. I am afraid that I cannot accept the hon. Member's thesis that we must provide ourselves with stocks which would enable us to stand a siege, because he seems to suggest that we should have lost command of the seas.
§ Sir T. Inskip
Then he and I are in agreement on this point, that you do not want to have stocks in order to stand the siege of a beleaguered city, but stocks to carry you over a period of disturbance, interruption in bur shipping, and possible destruction of stocks at the ports. The Government have proceeded upon that plan and I think we have made, so far, adequate purchases for the situation as it is at present. My right hon. Friend has given an assurance, as far as wheat and whale oil and sugar are concerned, that there is no present intention of adding to those purchases. There are problems which deal with the necessities, possibly, of a population that may be shifting, either by evacuation or some other process, and we are awaiting con- 2354 sideration of the question of the movement of population by a committee over which the right hon. Member for the Scottish Universities (Sir J. Anderson) will preside. May be when we have the report and recommendations of that committee it will be necessary to make provision for the population by stocks other than those which are acquired in the shape of wheat.
A question was asked me by the right hon. Member for Hillsborough as to the financial arrangements. The Bill requires that any money advanced should be paid back to the Consolidated Fund in the year following the close of the financial year in which the original transaction took place. That is a usual provision in connection with other advances out of the Consolidated Fund. It entails the ascertainment of the sum and the granting of it by the House of Commons in the previous July. That is the customary practice. It means a postponement of only three months after the close of the financial year in which the original transaction took place. There is nothing unusual in that, and it will in the appropriate period enable the House to obtain the fullest information.
Sir A. Salter
That means that we shall have next month, I take it, a Supplementary Estimate which will cover the expenditure already incurred?
§ Sir T. Inskip
Yes. With regard to liquidation. I have previously stated that one of the difficulties in food storage is the process of liquidation which must necessarily some day arise when our anxieties are at an end. Hon. Members have recognised that liquidation is a difficult process. My right hon. Friend has taken the course provided in the Bill, so that traders shall not have hanging over them indefinitely the possibility of disturbances of the market by the continual dribble of Government-owned stock on to the market with the possibility of depressing prices. It is not in the interests of the consumer any more than in the interests of the producer, that there should be a violent oscillating of prices. What is the alternative? The alternative is not to throw the whole volume on to the market at once but to give notice to the trade by a Bill that it is intended to liquidate the stocks for the purpose of closing down the arrangements altogether, and then traders will, I am afraid, have 2355 to put up with the consequences, whatever they may be for the time being, of a disturbance of the market. I think the House will agree that while there are disadvantages in the process it is best to give notice and have the- approval of the House that the time has come when these stocks can be liquidated. Of course there is the continual process of turning over the stocks in order to maintain them at their proper level as decided by the Government.
In the Bill the provisions are of a general character and apply to every class of commodity, and there might be a great danger in liquidating these stocks of incurring substantial loss to the Treasury.
§ Sir T. Inskip
I suggest that hon. Members should have an opportunity of considering this point in Committee. No one wants to be rigid about it, but my present impression is strongly in favour of the course adopted by my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, and I have no ground at all for thinking that the reasons which actuated him are not sound and ought not to be decisive. Questions have been asked as to the places of storage. One hon. Member asked whether the four firms who are concerned in wheat purchases have added to their storage to enable them to keep supplies. I think they can be relied upon to carry out their undertaking. I share the regret of the hon. Member for Oxford University that the tendency in recent years has been to concentrate the storage of grain in the ports by reason of the location of the mills at the dockside. We have to deal with circumstances as they arise. We must rely on these four firms, including the two Co-operative Wholesale Societies, English and Scottish, to carry out the arrangements which have been approved.
There has been a good deal of discussion about agricultural policy in connection with this Bill. May I point out at once that this storage policy does not exclude the necessity for considering a policy of agricultural production, which ought to be expanded in time of war, but this does not remove the necessity for this storage policy. They are not mutually exclusive policies. This is a supplementary policy. If you like they are two supplementary policies, and I only refrain 2356 from discussing the arguments which have been addressed to the House by hon. Members who sit for agricultural constituencies because this is hardly the occasion and, indeed, Mr. Speaker indicated it was not the occasion, to elaborate that part of the Debate. I have no doubt that Members in all parts of the House who are interested in agriculture will take an early opportunity of making the speeches which they have had some difficulty in presenting this afternoon.
§ Sir T. Inskip
Yes. If the hon. Member will look at the Bill he will see that it includes the producer. I sympathise with the desire of the hon. Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) to encourage the canning industry as an aid to employment in South Wales, but you can hardly deal with food storage as an unemployment problem. The hon. Member was quite right in saying that the question of canning food will have to be most carefully considered, and I should like to support one observation he made that it is a complete mistake to suppose that canned food under modern conditions is less nutritious or less useful in the way of food consumption than food which is naturally eaten. I believe I am speaking on the best advice in making that statement. There is no objection to the use of canning in this connection, and if it is not used it will not be because it is not a serviceable way of adding to our food storage.
We have been asked whether there are not good reasons for encouraging members of the public to lay in stocks. I have always been unwilling to do that as a policy. Let every prudent housewife do it if she likes, but it must be realised that it is only people in good circumstances who are able to spend money to supplement their normal stocks, and if the population of this country adopts a policy of that sort in response to an appeal by the Government it would only be the better-off members of the community who would be able to do so, and we should be making no provision for the large class of people who could not add to their stocks. However admirable it may be for anyone to add to supplies of food by keeping an iron ration, the Government are bound to turn a blind eye to any such proposal, in so far as it applies to food storage which should inure to the benefit of the whole 2357 population. I hope that is an adequate answer. I am not discouraging it. Let anyone do so if he likes, but as far as the Government are concerned we cannot bring it into our calculations.
The right hon. Member will realise that he may be quoted in favour of hoarding, and if housewives lay in large stocks in that way you may have, on an outbreak of hostilities, some difficulty in making a fair distribution of the national stocks. I hope we shall not encourage people to disturb the market in that way.
§ Sir T. Inskip
The last thing I would do would be to encourage that, and it is for that reason that I have never lent a willing ear to that suggestion.
§ Mr. G. Griffiths
I hope it will not be thought that the only thrifty wives are those who have plenty of money, for that was the statement made by the Minister. The wives who have not got any money are the thrifty wives. I was pleased that the Minister made the announcement, against the hon. Member for Oxford University (Sir A. Salter), that such a thing would be looked on with displeasure by the Government.
§ Sir T. Inskip
The suggestion is a very familiar one, and it has been constantly brought to my attention; and I thought that it was desirable that I should say that, as a matter of Government policy, we could not treat it as any substitute for, or even as a supplement to, the proposed s}'stem of food storage. I do not pretend that I have dealt with every point that has been raised. I have covered a wide field, and I shall not discuss such questions as the production of oil from coal—
§ Sir T. Inskip
On another occasion we can consider the Falmouth Committee's Report. I hope that if any points have been omitted by me in my reply, they are points that can be elucidated and examined in the Committee stage. With these observations, I hope that hon. Members, who have welcomed the Bill from all parts of the House, realising that it is a step forward, however tardily taken— if the hon. Member for Oxford University 2358 thinks that it was tardily taken—will now give the Bill a Second Reading.
Sir A. Salter
I should like to ask a question of very great importance from the point of view of the precedents and privileges of Parliament. This Bill, apart from its provision for the future, is a Bill of indemnity for expenditure which, while I agree that it is very laudable—
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Captain Bourne)
The hon. Gentleman must put his question very briefly, because he has already spoken in the Debate.
Sir A. Salter
In view of the fact that it is extremely rare in our Parliamentary history for expenditure to be incurred without previous authorisation, can the right hon. Gentleman, seeing that he is now asking for indemnity, tell us the amount of expenditure for which indemnity is asked, seeing that—
§ Sir T. Inskip
My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade has asked the House to wait until the Supplementary Estimate is brought forward, as it will be within the next five or six weeks. I hope the House will be satisfied with the statement that has already been made, bearing in mind especially that if I were to give an estimate of the amount which has so far been expended, it would be no indication, for the reasons I have mentioned, as to the stocks that will be maintained in this country.
§ Mr. Benn
The right hon. Gentleman is dealing with the amount of money. No one in this party desires to oppose the Bill, and we support it. The right hon. Gentleman will, of course, take notice that when the proper occasion arises, some comment must be made on the fact that this is a very rare case in which retrospective indemnity is demanded for expenditure already made.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for Tuesday, 14th June.— [Captain Dugdale.]