HC Deb 25 March 1952 vol 498 cc339-68

10.25 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the following Orders be annulled, viz.:—

  1. (1) The Bacon (Control and Prices) (Amendment No. 3) Order, 1951 (S.I., 1951, No. 2265), dated 20th December, 1951, a copy of which was laid before this House on 15th December,
  2. (2) The Flour (Amendment No. 2) Order, 1951 (S.I., 1951, No. 2198), dated 13th December, 1951, a copy of which was laid before this House on 15th December.
  3. (3) The Biscuits (Prices) (Amendment) Order, 1952 (S.I., 1952, No. 232), dated 7th February, 1952, a copy of which was laid before this House on 9th February,
  4. (4) The Bread (Amendment) Order, 1952 (S.I., 1952, No. 32), dated 9th January, 1952, a copy of which was laid before this House on 10th January,
  5. (5) The Flour Confectionery (Revocation) Order, 1952 (S.I., 1952, No. 208), dated 5th February, 1952, a copy of which was laid before this House on 6th February,
  6. (6) The Flour (Amendment) Order, 1952 (S.I., 1952, No. 209), dated 5th February, 1952, a copy of which was laid before this House on 6th February,
  7. (7) The Soap (Revocation) Order, 1952 (S.I., 1952, No. 210), dated 5th February, 1952, a copy of which was laid before this House on 6th February, and
  8. (8) The Chocolate, Sugar Confectionery and Cocoa Products (Amendment) Order, 1952 (S.1., 1952, No. 211), dated 5th February, 1952, a copy of which was laid before this House on 6th February, 1952.
In the first place, I ought to take the opportunity—

Sir John Mellor (Sutton Coldfield)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask whether I correctly understood that, in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams) after Questions today, you ruled that this Motion is in order? I understood that my hon. Friend submitted—I believe correctly—that it could not be in order in that it is asking Her Majesty to take a course of action which Her Majesty has no power to take, Her Majesty having no power to annul these Orders, although they could be revoked by Order laid by the responsible Minister. As the Motion has now been moved, may we have your Ruling on that point?

Mr. Speaker

As I ruled earlier today, the Motion is in order. It is a fact that, in respect of all the Orders except No. (3), the Motion is time expired. No. (3), the Biscuits (Prices) (Amendment) Order, has one day to run. It is open to an hon. Member, or a group of hon. Members, to put on the Paper a Motion which is in order. The only difference between this Motion and one moved in time, within the 40 days, is that if an Address is carried within the 40 days, the Order instantly ceases to have effect. That would not follow if this Motion were carried in respect of any of the Orders except No. (3). The Motion is in order and can be moved.

Sir J. Mellor

Further to that point of order. Am I not correct in saying that if the Motion is not carried within 40 days, Her Majesty has no power under the Statutory Instruments Act, 1946, to annul the Order to which it relates, although if the House expressed an opinion, it would obviously be taken into account by a Minister as to whether or not it would be appropriate to make an order revoking the Order objected to?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Baronet is in error. Her Majesty, if so advised, has ample power to annul the Order.

Mr. Willey

I was about to say that I take the opportunity of thanking the Government for affording my hon. Friends and me the opportunity of moving this Prayer. At the same time I should add that we ran into the exceptional difficulties that have arisen about this Prayer because we sought to meet the wishes of the Government in postponing our Motions relating to these Orders. I also pray for the indulgence of the House because I am now obliged to make nine speeches in one.

These Orders fall into two categories. There are Orders which enforce price increases and Orders which bring in measures of price decontrol. The price increases, in the main, are dependent on the decisions regarding the food subsidies, and the House will remember that the Parliamentary Secretary said in a debate on 26th February that the position at 31st October was that the subsidies were running at an estimated level of roughly £20 million over the ceiling of £410 million. I do not think the House will expect me to repeat the arguments I then advanced about the food subsidy position generally.

I have repeatedly argued that it has been the intention of the Minister of Food to reduce the amount of the food subsidies. I think it suffices to say that that contention has been borne out by the Chancellor's Budget statement. I still maintain that when the trading accounts are printed, they will show the Ministry to be well within the food subsidy ceiling. I realise that this is a complicated question. I think I am right in recollecting that last year the subsidies appeared to be running at the rate of £440 million, but I believe we finished it at about £400 million.

To turn to the price increases, the "Manchester Guardian," commenting on them, said that the price changes announced are more drastic than any food price revision since the war and are clearly intended to emphasise that the Government mean to stand firm on the food subsidy limit and to bring home to the consumer the real cost of food production at home and abroad. It was anticipating what the Chancellor was later to say. In explaining the price increases themselves, the Ministry of Food said: The General Election unavoidably postponed the introduction of these price increases, which otherwise might have been brought into effect at an earlier date or could then have been smaller than those now required with only three months of the financial year to run. I cannot accept that explanation. The Parliamentary Secretary, no doubt persuasively, will plead administrative difficulties, but I think it is clear that if his right hon. and gallant Friend had so wished he could have introduced further price increases much earlier than these were introduced. In fact, he could have introduced further price increases at the time he announced the increase in the price of milk.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has now announced that there will be price increases introduced to recoup £160 million in the coming financial year, but I am quite sure that no major price increase will be introduced until after the local government elections. The fact of this postponement, however, means that we are entitled to come to the conclusion that equally these present price increases were delayed so that the increases would be so much steeper. In other words, the delay is the pretext for making the price increases as great as possible. The purpose of this is, of course, that these price increases will operate not only in the present financial year, but in the coming financial year. It means that in this way the Minister of Food is, in advance, making serious inroads into the food subsidy position of next year.

To turn to the actual orders themselves, perhaps I may be allowed to explain that there has been a casualty. We were intending to pray against nine Orders, and, in fact, the statement of the Ministry to which I have referred also refers to the increase of 10d. in the price of cheese. What has happened is that that Order has already been revoked by a subsequent Order. In fact, it was one of those against which we prayed last week, but my hon. Friends and I felt it was better to confine the debate last week to the single matter which we then discussed.

Our objection to the increase in the price of cheese was that it bears very hardly on the agricultural workers and other workers without canteen facilities, those workers with the 12 oz. cheese ration. It is for that reason that we have always endeavoured to keep the price of cheese stable.

The first Order relates to bacon. It enforces an unprecedented increase in the price of bacon—an increase of 10d. a lb.—which the Minister of Food estimated would bring in £9 million this year, but which, as I have explained, will bring in £36 million in the next financial year, and will thus reduce the food subsidies to that extent.

The extent of this increase is shown by its comparison with the increases made during the life of the last Government. During that time there were two increases in the price of bacon, each of 2d. a lb. Now we have a single increase of 10d. a lb., and the Chancellor has already announced that there will be further increases in the price of bacon.

There are two reasons why there should never be a steep increase in the price of bacon. In the first place, the proportion of the supplies of bacon for civilian consumption which go direct to the housewife and not to the caterers, institutions, and manufacturers, is higher than in the case of any other rationed commodity. In fact, 89 per cent. of all our bacon supplies goes direct to the housewife. A price increase on bacon, therefore, is borne more directly by the housewife than any other price increase of a rationed commodity.

The other reason is that the bacon ration has always been taken up in full. The uptake has always been about 100 per cent., even as we found during the life of the last Government, when the ration was five ounces a week, and as the Parliamentary Secretary will now find with the ration at five ounces. Bacon has always been found a desirable and essential food which the housewife must buy at all costs. I do not know whether that is because of the propaganda of the "Radio Doctor" about animal protein, but the fact remains that not only does the greater proportion of the bacon go to the housewife, but the housewife has always availed herself of every opportunity to buy bacon, whatever the ration.

Mr. W. R. A. Hudson (Hull, North)

Will not the hon. Gentleman confirm that during the period of the last Government they had occasion to authorise the cooking of bacon because the full ration was not being taken up?

Mr. Willey

No. The information we had before us was that the bacon ration was always taken up: in fact, there had been adjustments to enable housewives to take a larger amount than the weekly ration.

If we look at the supplementary estimate, the subsidy for bacon is £14 million less than was originally estimated, so that there is no case for the present increase. The decrease in the Estimates is due to the fact that the ration level did not come up to the level estimated at the time of the original Estimates. This price increase is not only unprecedented, it is unjustified, and no price increase could bear more hardly on the housewife.

I need not spend much time discussing the second Order, which deals with flour. The Ministry of Food has acted so quickly in increasing the price that it is already out of date. This Order increased by one halfpenny a pound the price of flour and by one penny a pound the price of semolina. But no sooner was the price of semolina increased than it was decontrolled, and the housewife had hardly got accustomed to paying a halfpenny a pound more for flour than she found the price increased by another 1¼d. So far as flour is concerned, the housewife has learned quickly what the Chancellor of the Exchequer meant by restoring "a sense of reality." In fact, every time she buys her daily bread she appreciates exactly what he meant.

The third Order relates to biscuits, and both increases the price and decontrols it. It increases the price of sweet and chocolate biscuits by one penny a pound, and frees from controls the price of other biscuits.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Dr. Charles Hill)

Will the hon. Gentleman say where it increases the price of biscuits by one penny a pound?

Mr. Willey

On the price increase we are at cross-purposes, but over decontrol we are not.

Dr. Hill

For the sake of clarification, Order 1952 does not, as I understand it, raise the price of biscuits.

Mr. Willey

We are obviously at cross-purposes because I am not dealing with that Order. I am dealing with Biscuit (Prices) Order 232.

Dr. Hill

I am sorry. That is the number.

Mr. Willey

As I understand it—and the hon. Gentleman the Parliamentary Secretary will have an opportunity of dealing with this later—it increases the maximum price of biscuits and decontrols other categories of biscuits.

To deal first of all with the decontrol of the prices of unsweetened biscuits, I would say that for some time the biscuit manufacturers have been pressing for increases in price. The last Government resisted that pressure and refused to allow increases in price. In those circumstances I believe that it is very irresponsible of the Minister of Food to throw in his hand and let prices find their own level. It is very wrong to decontrol prices in the light of such pressure.

The position is worse because not only has there been this pressure but there have been serious cuts in the allocations to the biscuit manufacturers of sugar, oils and fats. In fact, the Minister of Food described, quite properly, the cuts in oils and fats as very heavy. He said that these cuts would peg back production not to the 1951 or 1950 level but to the 1949 level. In those circumstances, obviously there can be no real competition.

There is no case whatever for decontrol, and it can only lead to increases in prices. The position, in short, is that the Minister of Food is afraid to face the question of regulating price increases, and he has abandoned the rôle which the Ministry of Food should properly occupy of protecting the housewife's purse.

On the question of prices, the Parliamentary Secretary can, when he has the opportunity, explain why the explanation given by his Ministry is incorrect; I am accepting that explanation for the purposes of the present argument. When we on these benches were in office, we examined the application of the biscuit manufacturers for an increase. That application was rejected at the official level. It was against that rejection that the biscuit manufacturers appealed. In fact, as Parliamentary Secretary, I heard the appeal; I upheld the officials and rejected the case for an increase.

When a short while ago we were dealing with the Biscuits Charges Order, the Parliamentary Secretary explained—it was a difficult matter—that the Biscuits Charges Order taken in conjunction with this Order meant that the biscuit manufacturers have appreciably increased their profit margins on biscuits. As I have explained, only a short while ago we did not believe that a case had been made out. I think we were right. To test whether we were right or wrong I have looked at the trading returns.

If we take the two main groups, taking first of all United Biscuits, which includes McVitie and Price and Macfarlane Lang, we find that whereas the group trading profits for 1949 were £666,000, in 1950 they were £743,000. If we take the other large group, Associated Biscuit Manufacturers, which includes Huntley and Palmers and Peek Frean, we find that whereas the profits in 1949 were £828,000, in 1950 they were £974,000.

I would point out that these are the latest figures available. When we are dealing with an application for price increases we can only deal with the latest available figures. But in the case of another large concern we have got later figures. In the case of Wrights Biscuits, whereas in 1950 they made a profit of £368,000, in 1951 they made a profit of £462,000—very nearly £100,000 more. These facts clearly demonstrate that the decision we took was the right one.

Mr. C. N. Thornton-Kemsley (Angus, North and Mearns)

Will the hon. Gentleman relate these figures of profit to turnover? I am sure that he will admit that the important thing is to know the turnover in every case.

Mr. Willey

I cannot give the figures exactly, but I am obliged to the hon. Member for mentioning this, because as a result of the action of the Minister of Food the turnover will be appreciably reduced, so that the proportion of profit to turnover will be scaled up. Without further information, I believe that the figures clearly demonstrate that we were right in resisting a price increase.

Another point is that distributors' margins on biscuits are percentage margins. That means that the grocers will now have increased margins on biscuits. This was not taken into account in the £10 million we discussed a short time ago. I am sure that the House would like to know how much the grocers get over that amount by the increase of these margins.

The fourth Order is also a decontrolling Order. It removes the limit on charges for the wrapping and slicing of bread, and again the present Government have reversed the policy of the last Government I met the bakers in 1951, and in April, after careful consideration, the then Minister of Food decided that there was no case for an increase in the price of the small loaf, but allowed increases of one farthing and one halfpenny on the larger loaves. I made it clear to the bakers that we would not be prepared lightly to allow further increases.

Later in the year the bakers made another application. On that occasion I believe, the English Co-operative societies did not support the application. After examination of the position I again refused to accept the case for an increase, and this was endorsed by the then Minister. In other words, we were not prepared to allow an increase after examining the costings in the light of other relevant factors.

We had to look at the importance of paper in the balance of payments question and the high profits being made by the large bakers, and to offset these against the fact that the small bakers had not the machinery for wrapping. But what does the present Minister do? In these circumstances he decides that he will again throw in his hand, decontrol prices, and allow the bakers to charge what they will. And in the same way he abandons the housewife and the role of the Minister to protect the housewife.

The Minister said that in doing this "some increase above the present level of charges was likely." He was right. There have been increases already. There will be more increases, and that is bound to be greatly to the prejudice of those parts of the country where for all practical purposes one can only buy wrapped bread. I know that the Ministry has put into the Order an "escape" clause, stating that unwrapped bread must always be available; but we know that it is a dead letter and is incapable of enforcement.

The fifth, and perhaps the most important, Order, is again a measure of price decontrol. Again it is reversing the policy of the late Government. My right hon. Friend, the then Minister of Food, met the bakers in 1951, and again as late as June of last year he made a new schedule of maximum prices, which was well-received, if indeed not welcomed, by the bakers.

In spite of those increases which were allowed last June, the Minister now abandons price control, and as in the case of biscuits does that when there have been very serious reductions in the allowance of sugar, oils and fats to bakers. In the circumstances there cannot possibly be any real competition in the bakery trade. It is no good raising the classical argument about competition. These are trades acting in circumstances accepted by all parties during the war as circumstances justifying price control.

Another important factor about bakers and confectionery is that one of the purposes of control is to ensure that an undue proportion of ingredients do not go into classes of confectionery which many people cannot afford. I am sure the Parliamentary Secretary will not be sur- prised to know that I have already received many indignant complaints from housewives about the prices they have to pay for cakes and confectionery.

The three remaining Orders are all Orders decontrolling the price of foodstuffs. I mentioned semolina. In December the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Food allowed an increase in the price of semolina. Almost as soon as that is operative what does he do? He throws in his hand, decontrols, and lets prices find their own level. The allocation of oils and fats to soap manufacturers has been cut. What does he do at the same time? He sets the price of soap free.

The last example is the case of chocolate couverture. The Minister of Food's own explanation of these Orders was that he believed these controls "no longer serve a useful purpose." The useful purpose which was served was the purpose commonly accepted as basic by all parties, that when the Government interfere with industry and allocate materials, and where the circumstances are such as to prevent the operation of free competition, price control is inevitable if the housewife is to be protected.

In the case of these commodities we have had price increases, and we shall have more as the months go by. We protest against these Orders because, as far as price increases are concerned, they were avoidable and ought to have been avoided. We say they are harsh in their incidence and, as far as the Orders decontrolling prices are concerned, they betray a callous and cynical disregard for the housewife. I do not believe that when the next Election comes we shall hear the "Radio Doctor" in a political broadcast, but I believe the housewife will neither forgive nor forget the breach of promise that these Orders demonstrate. I think she will be in the forefront in seeing that the Government get their true deserts.

10.54 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Bing (Hornchurch)

I beg to second the Motion.

I do not want to detain the House for any length of time, but I am sure my hon. Friends will excuse me if I occupy the time of the House for a moment to thank the Leader of the House—whom I am sorry to see is not here—for his courtesy in using his influence on the Prime Minister to move the suspension of the Rule so that this matter might be discussed. It is a valuable precedent. I think my hon. Friends are with me when I say that we all rather resent the pernickerty attacks made on him on the other side of the House for so doing. I can give an assurance that if any similar attacks take place, he will have hon. Members on this side in his support.

I say that the more because if the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir J. Mellor) had taken the trouble to refer to Erskine May, he would have seen that the point of order he made, and that of the hon. Member for Croydon East (Sir H. Williams) regarding the validity of this Motion, were completely without foundation. I will just refer the House to one sentence in that valuable work. Erskine May says: A Member who seeks other occasions for moving a Prayer against delegated legislation must succeed in the difficult task of finding time in the ordinary Sittings of the House. Thanks to the good offices of the Leader of the House, we have achieved that.

Therefore, I need not do more than just refer the House for one moment to the argument which we addressed to the House on 12th March in regard to this very matter. I had occasion then to say—and I think, perhaps, it would be valuable now if I were to repeat it, so that the constitutional position may be clear— There is no objection at any time in this House to a humble Address being presented to Her Majesty … Once the period has elapsed the Motion becomes the same as any other Motion on the Order Paper … The Leader of the House should not take technical advantage of that, but should undertake to move the suspension of the Rule so that the Motion could be moved in the same circumstances as if the Paper had been correct. I am very glad that the right hon. Gentleman did in fact do so. Then Mr. Speaker said: I would ask the hon. and learned Gentleman to look again at Section 5 of the Statutory Instruments Act, 1946

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley

On a point of order. I understood you to call the hon. and learned Gentleman to second the Motion, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. Am I not right in saying that Mr. Speaker ruled that this Prayer was in order? That is not questioned. At any rate, it is certainly not questioned on this side of the House. I submit to you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that the hon. and learned Gentleman is quite out of order in not confining himself at the moment to the Prayer before the House, and to seconding the Motion.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Colonel Sir Charles MacAndrew)

I understood the hon. and learned Gentleman was showing courtesy to the Leader of the House.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

Further to that point of order. I hope that we shall be allowed on this side of the House to express our thanks to the Leader of the House when he has acted as handsomely as he has done on this occasion. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Angus, North (Mr. Thornton-Kemsley), should object to our doing so.

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)

I take it, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that there are some limits to these courtesies?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I think that what the hon. and learned Gentleman was saying was quite in order.

Mr. Bing

The point I was about to quote next was that Mr. Speaker then said: I hope what has been said tonight will result in fruitful discussion, and that we may now pass from it."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th March, 1952; Vol. 497, c. 1527–8.] Unfortunately, as the hon. Member for Croydon, East was here, that was, in fact, not possible. It was necessary to carry on for a moment the constitutional discussion.

I do not want to go into those points further, but merely to say that it would be very wrong indeed for this House ever to depart from the principle that we are entitled to preserve the right—one of the oldest rights of this House—to petition the Crown.

I only say in conclusion that, if we were successful tonight in petitioning the Crown in regard to increased prices of food, and the Crown had then to seek advice from Her constitutional advisers, I am quite certain I speak for the whole House when I say that no one more than the Lord President of the Council would be prepared to advise Her Majesty that any Prayer against any Order that corresponded in any degree to the promises he had seen fit to make to the people when his party were seeking election should be acceded to. I hope the House will succeed in petitioning the Crown in the sense which would commend itself to the Lord President of the Council, in accordance with his heart, and not in accordances with the party ties in which he has at present involved himself.

11.0 p.m.

Mr. E. Fernyhough (Jarrow)

As one moves about the country, signs of the last General Election are still to be observed. Big posters say, "Seal That Hole in Your Pocket," "Bring Down the Cost of Living," and all of them remind us of the many promises made by the Government during that period. It is a strange way to bring down the cost of living to force up prices in this manner. It is more niggardly because, in the recent Budget, the Chancellor tried to convey to the country the idea that any increases in the cost of living would be covered by the additional benefits which would be given in the way of family allowances, increased sickness pay, increased unemployment pay, and an increase in the National Assistance benefits.

These price increases are coming with unfailing regularity months before the compensation, which the Chancellor promised, becomes effective. It must be borne in mind that these price increases are an intolerable burden to that lower-paid section of our community, and the whole of that section of the community who are on what I would term National Insurance benefits.

There was a very illuminating interjection during my hon. Friend's speech by an hon. Member on the other side, who said that, under the Labour Government, there were times when the whole of the bacon ration was not taken up.

If the whole of the bacon ration was not taken up when bacon was at the price it was under a Labour Government, then very little of it will be taken up at the price bacon will reach under the Tory Government. [An HON. MEMBER: "And then end the rationing?"] As my hon. Friend said, and then end the rationing.

Have not the Tories always believed that the millionaire was entitled to more than a miner, that a racketeer was entitled to more than the engineer? Have not they always believed one can do away with rationing by making the price prohibitive for a large section of the community? The price of essential foods is being put beyond the reach of millions of ordinary people. There will be no need to have a rationing scheme. The rich will be able to get all they want because the poor will be unable to buy the share to which they are entitled.

Sir W. Darling

If the proposition the hon. Member makes is that the whole of the rationing system will be abolished, the cost of the Ministry of Food is nearly £500 million, which would be considerable saving.

Mr. Fernyhough

Of course, one could save that £450 million.

Sir W. Darling

No, £500 million.

Mr. Fernyhough

One could save that sum at the expense of the nine million people who are entitled to the food. That is the Government's idea of fair shares.

I want to tell the Parliamentary Secretary something which he and the Chancellor ought to consider most seriously. In his Budget speech, the Chancellor pleaded with the trade unions to be restrained in their demands. The policy of the Ministry of Food is the most direct incentive there could possibly be for the trade unions to use their economic power to force higher wages. I say "Good luck" to them, and will give them every support I can if this policy is to be pursued.

I plead with the Parliamentary Secretary, who, because of his professional knowledge and understanding, knows how essential good food is to the whole of the citizens, to demand from the Chancellor, for his Ministry, what the Service Ministers get for their respective Departments. If he does that, he will do a great thing for the people of this country and will earn the blessing of the majority.

The Minister of Food has said that over his door there is a motto, "We cope and we care." Does he believe the lower paid sections of the community are going to be looked after by forcing up prices beyond their reach, by putting prices up months before they are getting the benefits the Chancellor has promised? The least he could have done was to say that these increases would not operate until the whole of the changes in National Insurance, etc., had become effective. There might then have been some justification. But by doing it now, all that he is doing is to make it possible for those with deep pockets to get more and impossible for those with poor pockets to get their fair share.

11.6 p.m.

Mr. Baker White (Canterbury)

I will not keep the House for more than a few moments, but I do want to put right one false impression created by the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. F. Willey) on the subject of biscuit profits. I have no connection with the biscuit-making industry whatever. I have no interest in it, but I do know something about the export drive in which it took part.

At the behest of the Socialist Government, the biscuit makers of this country, after the war, went on an all-out drive to increase exports of the highest grades of biscuits—the highest grades which were not sold in the home market at all. The figures of export are rather interesting. In 1949 the exports were 371,000 cwt.; in 1951, they were 467,000 cwt. The figures of value are even more interesting. Those rose from £3,760,000 in 1949 to £5,928,000 in 1951.

That was where the profit was made—on these high grade biscuits sent abroad, not on biscuits sold to the public at all, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer—with the ingenious system of taxation that we have, took these extra profits from them as soon as they made them.

11.8 p.m.

Mrs. Jean Mann (Coatbridge and Airdrie)

If it were possible for the housewives of this country to sue hon. Members opposite for breach of promise, the damages would not merely upset the balance of payments and seriously affect the defence programme, but paralyse the whole sterling area.

Mr. James Callaghan (Cardiff, South-East)

They are not worth a row of beans.

Mrs. Mann

The Chancellor, the honest man—the honest Chancellor—and are they not all honourable men?—has said that Conservatives would make one of the most intensive attacks ever made on the cost of living. Let us then see how this promise has been carried out. I cannot refer to the Chancellor's Budget statement. I will bear your injunction in mind, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and keep strictly to it, that one can only speak of what is in these Orders. What is in them is trouble, and trouble of such magnitude that I might keep the House for another two hours.

Since hon. Members opposite got back to power, we have seen cheese and bacon, not 1d. or 2d. more per pound, but 10d. per pound on each. My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. F. Willey) pointed out to hon. Gentlemen on the Front Bench the necessity of cheese for agricultural workers. I do not require, as the mother of a number of doctors, to point out to another doctor the very valuable protein which cheese provides, not merely for agricultural workers, but for every other member of the family. Tenpence a pound rise at one go sends it from 1s. 2d. to 2s. There is bacon at 10d.

Then there is the price of milk. Milk is recognised by the Parliamentary Secretary's profession as a basic food. Every one of the cereals—the breakfast foods—has gone up in price. So have vegetables, fish and meat, some fruits, some preserves, pulses such as barley, green peas, yellow peas, that most valuable protein food the lentil, rabbits, suet, and now in these Orders the items—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Order. I think the hon. Lady is going beyond the Ruling to which she referred when she started her speech.

Mrs. Mann

Hon. Gentlemen opposite have done enough damage already without imposing these Orders on the public.

This brings me to the honest Chancellor's statement that he would make one of the most intense attacks ever made on the cost of living. I wonder what would have happened if it had not been made at all? Is the Chancellor not like the man who boasted to his wife that he bravely went up to the dentist's door and hammered on it with a sponge? Is that the kind of attack that has been made on the cost of living?

I wonder whether the noble Lord in another place has anything to do with these Orders. I recall the Prime Minister expressing his very deep regret about Lord Woolton not being in charge of our food. He said, "I am sorry that Lord Woolton is not looking after our food as he did in the war." Is he looking after it now? Has he anything to do with these Orders which are daily increasing the cost of living to everyone? "We could have a better diet now if he were," said the Prime Minister, "and at about half the administrative cost. Cheap and abundant food is the foundation of our strength."

Is it here? Is it in these Orders? Every one of the Orders adds something to the cost of food. I noted that an hon. Gentleman opposite thought that there was nothing in the Biscuits Order that enabled prices to go up. As a housewife I would be very much astonished if there is nothing about that in the Order, because I buy a wide range of biscuits. I purchase every kind of biscuit I can get my hands on—not always at the same time, but from time to time. I always keep a big one for the hon. Gentleman the Member for Edinburgh, South (Sir W. Darling), because I think he always takes the biscuit.

Strictly speaking, there is nothing in the Order which denotes an increase, but the Explanatory Note—and simple people like myself, who do not understand White Papers and Blue Papers always look at the Explanatory Note—says: permitting biscuits of the same classification to be mixed for retail sale; My word, how the grocers have responded to that—mixing the grades of biscuits. It also says: extending the scale of maximum retail prices of biscuits sold by count (previously limited to 4½d.) to 6d. per unit of sale; This, I take it, is a "determined, extensive attack on the cost of living."

No. 4 says, prescribing halfpenny maximum-price stages from 1d. to 2s. 4d. (instead of, as previously, up to 2s. only) for biscuits sold by the package; I need not speak about bread. The price has shocked everyone. If there were a General Election next week, the party now in opposition would be returned to power.

Hon. Members


Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)

Try it and see.

Mrs. Mann

As a result of the Flour Confectionery Order, we find that ordinary morning rolls, which were five for 4d., have gone up to 1d. each, and that teabread, such as plain buns, have gone up from ¾d. each to 1d. each. Iced cakes of every description have increased in price.

Surely the Parliamentary Secretary appreciates the great necessity of keeping the party clean and of making soap cheap. But soap, too, has gone up in price—as has chocolate, sugar confectionery and cocoa. All these items have increased in price.

I have great pleasure in supporting the Prayer that the Orders should be annulled. I should like to know what part Lord Woolton played in these Orders, for I want to conclude with this quotation from his speech: When you return a Conservative Government you can rely on it that the cost of your food will not go up. I promise you that you will have a greater choice, better variety, but no higher prices.

Mr. Lewis

He should resign.

Mrs. Mann

I think the electors should be given the choice as quickly as possible of turning out the present Government.

11.18 p.m.

Mr. Charles Doughty (Surrey, East)

I rise without any fear of an action by the hon. Lady the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mrs. Mann) for breach of promise. I will, however, at her invitation, keep the party clean. It is quite obvious that she is ignorant of the facts of life. She has produced a few quotations from the speech of my right hon. Friend, who was then the Leader of the Opposition—speeches made when the circumstances were entirely different and when there was still something left in the kitty.

Hon. Members opposite have since dug to the bottom of the barrel and have removed what little had been left—and then have handed over responsibility and difficulties to this side of the House. We find utterly and completely different facts today. Fortunately, the people of this country are sound and solid, and if there were a General Election today I am happy to say that fewer hon. Members opposite would enter the doors of the Chamber.

To continue my little lesson on the facts of life, hon. Members speak of prices going up at a time when there is nothing left in the kitty.

Mr. Fernyhough

Hon. Members opposite said that they would be reduced.

Mr. Doughty

Of course they are reduced. We are cutting down Government expenditure, which we promised to do. If we did not do that with what the party opposite left us, which was practically nothing, food prices would rise by considerably more than a 1d. or 2d.

Mr. Callaghan

If, as the hon. Gentleman says, we scraped the barrel before we left office, will he tell the House how the Chancellor proposes to maintain the level of consumption this year by robbing stocks of £100 million?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

If we get as far as that, we shall get right away from the Motion.

Mr. Doughty

I accept your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, although I should like to answer the hon. Gentleman's point. Of course, if the hon. Gentleman sticks his neck out too far, I may feel constrained to answer him until you stop me.

I was referring to the resources of gold and dollars which were left, or, rather, were not left, to us by the party opposite. That is the cause of the difficulty we are in, and which any Government would have been in. We are not running away from our responsibilities, as did hon. Members opposite.

The hon. Member for Coatbridge and Aidrie referred to the promises made by the Conservative Party about attacking the cost of living. We did promise that; I promised it myself during the Election.

Mr. Glenvil Hall (Colne Valley)

Will the hon. Gentleman explain to the House how, if the amount which has been taken off by way of food subsidies—that is, the cuts—is being returned, that helps the gold and dollar shortage?

Mr. Doughty

The answer is that if Government expenditure is cut it supports the currency.

I certainly promised that we would attack the cost of living, and so did other hon. Members on this side. We are doing it. If the Chancellor had not led us night and day in doing it—

Mr. Fernyhough

Is it not a fact that the total Government expenditure this year under the Conservative Government is to exceed that of last year under the Labour Government?

Mr. Doughty

What would it have been under a Labour Government? We are attacking the cost of living which, but for our attack, would by now have been something deplorable. The people of this country do not realise how bad the position would have been. I have seen the price of a meal in foreign countries go up during the time of eating it, and that sort of thing would have happened in this country if the party opposite had been returned to power.

Our attack on the cost of living is proving successful, I am pleased to say. It will continue to be successful, and we are keeping our promises as we said we would. The propaganda of hon. Members opposite which says we are not is, like so many of their statements, totally untrue.

Mr. George Brown (Belper)

The hon. Gentleman is saying that by these Orders he and his party are redeeming the promises they gave during the Election to attack the cost of living. Will he now tell us which of these Orders is attacking the cost of living in the sense of reducing it?

Mr. Doughty

I never said "in the sense of reducing it." I said we were attacking the cost of living which would have been something phenomenal but for our efforts in that direction. As I have said, these necessary increases are as nothing compared with what they would have been had the party opposite still been in power.

11.24 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Dr. Charles Hill)

I hope the House will forgive me if I follow the example of the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. F. Willey) and direct my attention to the Orders under consideration. May I first of all thank the hon. Gentleman and his seconder for their generous references to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. Whatever technical position may exist, we are having the promised debate.

The hon. Gentleman who moved the Motion referred at the outset, after his preliminary generalities, to the bacon situation. He referred to it as within the bacon, cheese and milk situation. We discussed the milk point a short time ago. He challenged the statement which my right hon. and gallant Friend has made that the postponement of the introduction of higher charges in the case of bacon—which I am taking as an example, indeed the only relevant one—has resulted in higher increases of price than would otherwise have been necessary.

May I draw the attention of the House to the food subsidy position as it was in the summer of last year? As the hon. Gentleman the Member for Sunderland, North, knows, each month an estimate is made of the food subsidy situation to ascertain whether the subsidy for the year is running at, above or below the ceiling laid down by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Gaitskell). On 30th June last it was estimated to be running at £430 million. The hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friend knew that. They did nothing about it. Possibly they were hoping that a further month's trading estimates would reveal a lower figure. On 31st July it was slightly lower at £423 million, still £13 million above the ceiling. On 31st August it was again running at £430 million, £20 million above the ceiling. On 30th September it was running at £430 million, and on 31st October it was running at £432 million, or £22 million above that ceiling.

Mr. F. Willey

I wonder if the Parliamentary Secretary would pay attention to the index figures of food import prices, because in July it was 103, in August, 102, and in September, 101. All these factors have to be considered when the food subsidy is examined at regular intervals. When the Parliamentary Secretary knows his job, he will realise that this matter of running at £20 million above the ceiling is nothing exceptional.

Dr. Hill

When the former Chancellor of the Exchequer imposed the ceiling of £410 million he did not say that this was the ceiling provided that prices did not go up. He imposed it to retain the subsidy maximum at that level whether prices went up or not.

Mr. Willey


Dr. Hill

Will the hon. Gentleman let me finish this point? On 30th June the position was obvious to the late Government. They knew the subsidy was estimated to be running at £20 million above the limit laid down by themselves. They knew the time had come to raise food prices to maintain that ceiling of £410 million. They could have done this at the end of June. They could have done it at the end of July or at the end of August—but they did not do it at all. When we came into office we found a situation in which the level of food subsidies, with the exception of one month, had been running at £20 million above the ceiling for five months.

Mr. Willey

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. We are talking about the rate at which the food subsidy is running. Aided with all providence, it would be quite fortuitous if at any moment it happened to be running precisely on the food subsidy ceiling level. That is why this matter has to be examined in the light of factors such as I have given, including the food import prices, which have been falling.

The other point which I want to put quite plainly to the hon. Gentleman is this, because he has not been at all fair to the House. He has been very unfair to his officials. He is quite plainly making an allegation. The position, as he will discover if he cares to make inquiries, is that no anxiety was shown on the official side of the Ministry at the position at which the food subsidy ceiling was running. It was by no means exceptional.

Dr. Hill

I am not going to follow the hon. Member or his right hon. Friend in seeking yet again to bring officials into what is really a Ministerial responsibility. Of course, only an estimate can be made each month, for the final subsidy figure cannot be accurately determined until the end of the financial year. The purpose of making the estimate is to see how the level of subsidy is running. I repeat that the position could have been put right five months before.

When we came into office and discovered that the level of subsidy had been running £20 million over the ceiling for five months, it was our duty to tackle that situation at the earliest possible moment. But we were in this position: that £20 million had to be found during what remained of the financial year. That £20 million had to be raised in the last three months of the financial year, for there were only three months remaining of the financial year by the time we could bring these new prices into operation. That is what my right hon. and gallant Friend meant when he asserted that if prices had been put up over a period of six months the increases could have been very much less than those we were compelled to make. In short, we were dealing with the inheritance that we found—an inheritance of a subsidy level which had exceeded the promised ceiling for almost six months of the previous financial year.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

Will the hon. Gentleman allow me?

Dr. Hill

No. I want to press on with the further examination of the bacon position. Having been confronted with the problem of finding £20 million over a period of three months, the next question to be decided was upon which foods the increases should be placed.

Mr. F. Willey

Before the hon. Gentleman reaches that point—

Dr. Hill

I have given way twice to the hon. Member, and on both occasions he has made further speeches. I want to complete this point relating to bacon.

In selecting bacon as one of the foods from which part of the £20 million—in fact, £9 million—was to be found, my right hon. Friend was guided by certain considerations, including the growth of the bacon subsidy. In 1945–46 it was £3 million. In 1947–48 it was £14 million. In 1950–51 it was £42½ million. At the end of last year it was running at a level of over £50 million. That amounted, as expressed in price per lb., to 1s. 3½d. per lb. of bacon, 50 per cent. of the retail price of 2s. 7d. per lb. That led to the selection of bacon as one of the three articles of food upon which would fall price increases to meet the deficit of £20 million which we inherited.

The hon. Member went on to deal with the Flour (Amendment No. 2) Order, 1951. A fair summary of his remarks is that he would not deal with that Order in any detail because it has already been overtaken by other Orders which will, no doubt, receive his attention. So I will follow his example and pass to his third subject, which is the Order dealing with biscuits. In an intervention I suggested to the hon. Member, as I now suggest to the hon. Lady who spoke on this point, that this Order does not of itself effect a rise in biscuit prices. At first sight it appears so to do because, as the hon. Lady suggested, there is an increased maximum per unit of sale for biscuits sold under certain conditions.

What the Order actually does is to permit the mixing of biscuits of the same price classification and to allow a wider range of biscuits to be sold by count, at the appropriate price, proportionate to the number of biscuits sold. It also extends in an upward direction the maximum price scale for packaged biscuits, so as to permit the sale in half pound packages of biscuits of the more expensive kind.

The hon. Member dealt with biscuit prices. May I, therefore, make a few observations on this subject? He asserted that he and his right hon. Friend, in the middle of last year, resisted the demands of biscuit manufacturers for higher prices. What, in fact, did happen? The biscuit manufacturers went to see the former Minister. He was not wholly convinced by their case, but he was sufficiently impressed to modify the repayment of biscuit levy.

Mr. Willey

I doubt very much whether we are in order in this, which was discussed on the Biscuit Charges Order, where it properly arose. When I was referring to this present Order, I was quoting a Press statement from the Minister. Therefore, if I was in error I plead that by way of excuse. The position about the manufacturers was that their application was rejected.

Dr. Hill

Let us accept that, and disregard the biscuit levy argument. What followed was an increase in the cost of flour subsidy of 5s. a sack. There also followed further cost increases after 1st October, ascertained by the Ministry's Costings Division in an inquiry which began with what the hon. Gentleman describes as the rejection of the biscuit manufacturers' claim. In other words, what happened was that the former Minister modified the levy; subsequently there have been two ascertained increases of costs justifying the position, as the hon. Gentleman accurately said, where the manufacturer has an increase of 2s. 8d. a cwt. of biscuits.

Mr. Willey

I apologise for again interrupting, which I do only to get this matter clear. I am sure that the House wants to understand the difference between us, which is difficult to raise on this particular Motion. The point was that out of this price increase there was a figure of 2s. 8d. a cwt. in regard to increased costs. I was arguing that that application had been resisted, on the facts as I saw them. I do not dispute that this is a matter of looking at costings, but it seems to me that there is no prima facie case.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I should point out that, although I have allowed frequent interventions, we are not in Committee and that hon. Members are limited to one speech.

Dr. Hill

The hon. Member will agree that he knew that, following the rejection which he so proudly described, the price of flour had gone up quite apart from any inquiry into costings.

I now pass to the third group, for I have classified the Orders into three groups, because the Biscuit Order does not, of itself, raise prices.

The third group consists of price decontrols of one kind or another. The criteria for considering the application of price control to a commodity are, I suggest, first, that the commodity shall be scarce and essential, second, that price control shall be effective. It is in the light of that consideration that we should look at the controls which have been removed. My right hon. and gallant Friend does not intend to maintain any control for control's sake. If a control has not worked and if, in fact, competition is as effective as or more effective than a Statutory Order in keeping prices at a proper level, then let us have competition and not Order.

I refer to unsweetened biscuits as the first item on the agenda. Supplies of these have been adequate since biscuits were freed from points control in March, 1949. Control was complicated. The working of supply and demand was expected to result in an increase of approximately one penny a lb. That has happened and we know from the costings we received that had control been maintained it would still have been necessary to increase prices by one penny a lb.

As supply and demand were expected to secure, and have in fact secured, that the price of biscuits did not rise by more than one penny a lb. we regard ourselves as fully justified in taking this step of decontrol.

The hon. Member referred to bread wrapping. He was a little less than candid in his reference to the subject. He knows that a case was made out, or a case was put to him, to permit an increase in the permitted charges for slicing and wrapping bread. The figures, as determined by Ministry officers, expert in this work, revealed that a case had been made out—take the 1¾ lb. loaf as an example—for an increase in the existing charge from three farthings to slightly more than a penny. Had control remained, it would have been necessary to increase to at least one penny the permitted charge for slicing and wrapping the 1¾ lb. loaf, with corresponding increases for the other loaves.

What did my right hon. and gallant Friend decide to do? Recognising this, he called the trade together—Co-operative representatives were there as well—and told them that he had to decide this issue. He asked them what, in their view, the effect of removing control would be. They told us that such was the competitive position that they thought the charge for the 1¾ lb. loaf, as an example, would not rise to more than one penny.

That has been our experience. We trusted the trade. We believed that competition would do it, and the trade has, in fact, kept its promise and the level of charge for slicing and wrapping this loaf is no higher, if as high, as the level which it would have been necessary to allow had we retained control.

Flour confectionery. This control began early in the war to discourage the more superior or more expensive types of flour confectionery. It was first based on ingredient costs; then it was ingredient costs plus weight; and before decontrol flour confectionery was divided into three groups, defined with meticulous care according to farinaceous content and to fat, sugar and dry egg solids content: the most complicated definitions.

Roughly speaking, flour confectionery is divided into buns and the like, with a maximum of 2s. per lb.; cakes and the like with a maximum of 3s. 6d. per lb.; and rich cakes, including birthday cakes, with a maximum of 6s. per lb. Completely unworkable. Indeed, maximum price per lb., one would have thought, would have been the last criterion to apply to pastry, the excellence of which depends not on its weight but on its absence of weight.

The whole thing was a failure. We could make only the feeblest attempt to check up on selected cakes or pastries, having them analysed for content of farinaceous material, sugar, fat, currants and the like; and then, by a process of weighing, seek to find out into which category they fell, and whether the maximum was being exceeded. My right hon. and gallant Friend decided that there are enough controls in this world without keeping on a wholly ineffective and absurd control like that.

Mrs. Mann

That is why cakes are bad.

Dr. Hill

I shall not follow the hon. Lady into the generalities of her local experience. She, no doubt, will explain her adjective to her local baker.

Semolina has been decontrolled. Coloured and flavoured semolina has not for years had the cold hand of a Statutory Order laid on it. Macaroni—which is semolina driven into certain tube-like shapes—has not for years been controlled; and my right hon. and gallant Friend thought, that being the position, and with only 13,000 tons of the stuff going on to the market per year, that it was not too fearful a risk to take to add plain semolina to the coloured semolina, and decontrol it.

The hon. Lady referred to soap. There is a supply ample enough to meet any demand from both sides of the House. There is great competition in the selling of soap. There is great com- petition, too, with the newer detergents which are on the market. My right hon. and gallant Friend found that, in fact, price control was unnecessary, because competition would not only control the situation, but also would encourage the development of newer, different and better kinds of soap. So he removed the control.

To sum up: in so far as the raising of the price of bacon is concerned the responsibility for the size of that rise falls fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the Government which closed their eyes month after month to the deficit in the subsidy account. No doubt the proximity of an approaching election had something to do with their failure to put up the prices as the ceiling demanded.

In the Biscuits (Prices) (Amendment) Order there is no price increase. On decontrol measures, let it be not apologetically but plainly said to the House that where controls are found not to be needed, because competition can do the task as well, my right hon. and gallant Friend will not retain unnecessary or ineffective controls. That attitude is one which finds expression in a number of these Orders.

11.50 p.m.

Mr. James Callaghan (Cardiff, South-East)

I think it would be as well if we were to try to deal shortly with the theory that underlies the Parliamentary Secretary's speech on the Bacon (Control and Prices) (Amendment No. 3) Order, 1951. I agree with the Leader of the House that it was a very interesting speech and that he showed an expert tread in walking delicately around the speeches which incommoded him most.

We have heard a lot about the doctrine of the election mandate, which, as I understand it, means when that one goes to the electorate one places in front of them a particular programme and policy, which one intends to carry out, and feels bound to carry out, when returned to office. We now seem to have exchanged for the doctrine of the mandate the fetish of the fetters because—

Dr. Hill

The argument of the heritage.

Mr. Callaghan

I prefer my more alliterative phrase, the fetish of the fetters.

The Parliamentary Secretary said that he was fettered. I will spell it for the Leader of the House if my pronunciation is not as clear as all that. "f-e-t-t-e-r-e-d." He is fettered by the fact that the previous Government fixed a ceiling for the subsidies of £410 million and that, because in the first three to four months after that policy was announced, the subsidies ran at a higher level than that which his Government were returned to power, they found themselves automatically bound by what the previous Government had decided and to restrict the subsidy level to the figure the previous Government had announced.

I must say this is a new feature in our constitutional life and one in which the Leader of the House would be very interested. This is not a question of what we would have done. It is a question of whether the new Government are bound by the decisions of their predecessors.

Dr. Hill

The substance of my argument was that our predecessors had publicly announced a ceiling of £410 million and persistently, month after month, ignored that ceiling, with the result there were only three months in which to recover the £20 million excess.

Mr. F. Beswick (Uxbridge)

The Parliamentary Secretary has stated, and reiterated, that we have persistently ignored the ceiling. In another part of his speech, he made a great point of the fact we had increased the price of flour. Was that in accordance with the persistent ignoring of the subsidy?

Dr. Hill

I am committing the sin of persistently dealing with the subject of the Order, which is bacon.

Mr. Speaker

We cannot have three hon. Gentlemen on their feet at the same time.

Mr. Callaghan

That is another example of the way the Parliamentary Secretary dodges a very important point. If, in fact, the price was being increased, it is not right to say the late Government were ignoring the consequences of the ceiling they fixed? I want to pin the Parliamentary Secretary on his own responsibility. He knows perfectly well, when a new Government comes back to power, that it is perfectly free to take different decisions on the food subsidies, in iron and steel denationalisation, road haulage, or anything else, on the doctrine of the mandate. There was nothing at all, on that basis, to prevent this Government from saying, "We intend to keep our promises in this matter of food prices and we shall do so by increasing the subsidy the late Government had proposed to put in operation for these 12 months."

That is what I mean when I talk about the new doctrine of the fetish of the fetters. The Parliamentary Secretary is saying that they must recover over three months a subsidy they should have recovered before. He is not fettered by anything of the sort. There is nothing to prevent him from coming forward with an increased food subsidy to keep down food prices. If he had fought against Lood Woolton and the Chancellor, he could have kept his Election promises. He knows that perfectly well. He knows very well indeed that there is no restriction on the freedom of action of his Government to keep down these food prices by increasing food subsidies.

They chose not to do it. That is a decision they are free to take, but they are not free to shelter behind the ceiling the late Government had chosen and announced. What they should have done, if they were honest, was to say, when they made the public announcement that they intended to keep down food prices, that they had no intention of keeping to it, because they have not used any of the methods they announced they would use to keep them down.

So far as I know, they have not sent their buyers scurrying all over the world to bring food back. So far as I know, they have not abolished bulk buying. They have actually reduced food subsidies instead of increasing them to hold the price level, and the consequence is that we are faced with a situation in which these are just eight of a series of Orders with which we are to have to deal over the next few months, which will mean increased prices payable by housewives because the Government are not carrying out the firm pledges they made to the electorate. I think we can leave them to the electorate, who will deal with them well and truly.

Mr. F. Willey

Although I was not at all satisfied with the answer of the hon. Gentleman, in view of the exceptional circumstances of this Prayer, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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