HL Deb 18 March 1941 vol 118 cc785-90

My Lords, I beg to ask His Majesty's Government a private notice question—namely, whether they are in a position to make a further statement about milk.


My Lords, some time ago I undertook that I would announce to Parliament the decision at which His Majesty's Government had arrived on the recommendations of the Committee presided over by my noble friend Lord Perry on the cost of distributing milk. I am personally grateful to the noble Lord and to those who served with him for the clear and illuminating Report which they presented, and which I have discussed in detail both with the trades concerned and with other members of the Government whose Departments, directly or indirectly, are affected or might come to be affected, by the proposals put forward. The chief recommendations of the Committee were to the effect that the margin allowed for distribution of milk should be drastically curtailed in the interests of the consumer. The average consumption of milk in this country is one gallon per family per week, and if the recommendations of the Perry Report could be put into operation, the saving to the consumer would be, at the most, fourpence per family per week.

This Report was written under conditions that were largely analogous to those of peace. Almost before the ink had dried on the Report the conditions changed considerably as a result of the heavy aerial bombardment of last autumn. It would only be prudent for us to assume that those conditions will continue during the remainder of the war. The experience of this last winter has shown us that there will be other conditions affecting the milk trade of which we are bound to take notice. It will be necessary for the Government considerably to extend their control over the conservation and the utilisation of milk, with consequent repercussions on the operations and on the finances of milk distributors. These are circumstances which members of both Houses of Parliament, who have inquired as to the decisions of His Majesty's Government on the recommendations of the Perry Report, must have before them in coming to a conclusion.

The noble Lord and his colleagues have in their Report made observations on the economic structure of the milk trade, which very rightly caused widespread interest; and I admit freely that in the light of that Report there seemed to be openings for the reconstitution of the milk trade. But the noble Lord, Lord Perry, with his very intimate knowledge of the problems that are facing the Ministry of Food, to which he himself rendered great service, will I think not be surprised when I tell him that there are so many things the responsibility for which already falls very heavily on my Department that I hesitate at this juncture to add unnecessarily to the burden that we have to carry, unless there is evidence that it will be in the public interest for us to do so. The measure of the public interest in this case is a saving of a maximum of fourpence per family per week.

Much has been said about the costliness of the organisations of the milk trade. I have to take trades as I find them. Without making any defence for the maintenance of the status quo, I must pay tribute to the work which the milk trade has done during the conditions that have operated in this country since last September. In spite of all the conditions of aerial bombardment, the disorganisation and the disturbance of rail transport, the closing down of stations, and the breaking up of roads, this country, almost without interruption and almost without delay, has been supplied every morning with its milk. The milk trade has rendered us good public service and, at any rate for part of the time, it must have been rendering that service at a financial loss to itself. These conditions will probably continue. My primary responsibility is to secure that the people get their food. The milk trade of this country has shown that it is capable and willing under such conditions to secure that people receive the supplies that they need. Moreover, there has been no profiteering in this trade. The trade has produced considerable evidence that under present conditions traders would find it impossible to continue in business under the margins recommended by the Perry Report. There is no alternative machinery at hand, and I should find it difficult in these circumstances to justify a line of policy which would certainly throw many people into financial difficulties and disturb the organisation of distribution which it is my primary duty to the community to maintain.

On these grounds, therefore, His Majesty's Government have decided that in these abnormal times it is not possible for them to adopt the recommendations my noble friend and his colleagues put forward. But there are other circumstances which your Lordships would like, I think, to bear in mind in this respect—namely, the conditions under which this trade will operate in the future. It may be convenient to your Lordships if I take this opportunity of reaffirming in this House the importance which His Majesty's Government attach to the production and the maintenance of milk supplies in this country. There must be no possibility of these supplies breaking down either at the productive or at the distributive stage. Especially for women and children milk is a vital foodstuff. Your Lordships are very well aware that milk supplies cannot be secured without planning ahead. The farmer must decide nine months ahead how much milk he expects to produce. It is on these grounds that His Majesty's Government announced, as early as February 12, the prices which they propose to pay to milk producers right up to March 31, 1942. These prices were encouragingly high. We want the milk, and therefore we must pay the farmer to produce it. The prices fixed for 1941–42 give an average increase against pre-war prices of nearly 4½d. a gallon for summer months and 11½d. a gallon for winter months. But in spite of all the steps that we can take, we must expect difficulty in maintaining milk production at the present level. The shortage of imported feeding stuffs is likely to become more acute, and there are certain other difficulties arising from the war, all of which will tend in the direction of a shortage of milk.

It is therefore necessary that the country should have clearly before it a policy governing the consumption of milk as well as its production. That consumption policy is so important that it is proper I should announce it to your Lordships. It is, first, to ensure a full supply of liquid milk to those who most need it; secondly, to compensate, in part, for the difficulty of importing dairy products, and, thirdly, to conserve, by converting into storable form, some of the summer production against the needs of the coming winter. The first priority consumer is provided for by the National Milk Scheme which I introduced in July, 1940, and which gave preference to nursing mothers and young children. Ten million gallons of milk are distributed monthly under this scheme to a total of 2,800,000 people. About one-third of the beneficiaries receive the milk free and the others pay 2d. per pint, which is rather less than half of the retail price. The margin allowed to the distributor under this scheme has been fixed at 10d. in England and Wales and 9d.in Scotland, and is designed by the trade to represent a contribution on their part to the war-time needs of the people of this country.

The Ministry of Food has assumed responsibility for the milk-in-schools scheme since the expiry of the Milk Industry Act at the end of 1940. With the co-operation of the Health and Education Departments, it has been dealing with the difficulties that have arisen as a result of war conditions and conditions of evacuation in operating this scheme. I hope that many of these difficulties have now been removed. By maintaining an unrestricted supply of milk to nursing and expectant mothers and to young children and children under the milk-in-schools scheme, we shall be giving priority to, and I taking care of, some 5,500,000 people. I am also making arrangements which will secure the maintenance of supplies to hospitals and, under prescribed conditions, to certain types of people who are ill. Having done that, I must then conserve the balance of our milk supplies in order that they may be available where the need of the nation is greatest.

I have decided to restrict the consumption of milk by the ordinary man and woman who do not come under the categories I have already described. I am asking dairymen, from the middle of April, to reduce their domestic sales by approximately one-seventh. Owing to the units in which the milk trade operates, it is impossible to secure that each household will receive exactly six-sevenths of its normal consumption. The milk traders, however, have assured me that they will use their best endeavours to arrange that this average reduction shall be made over a period of time and in accordance with the instructions which I shall issue. I appeal to the public to support the milk man in carrying out these instructions. This reduction in the turnover of the domestic milk trade is going very considerably to reduce the profit-earning capacity of that trade. The trade has undertaken to give its best support to this scheme, and I am bound to acknowledge the very ready spirit in which its members have met me. The milk thus saved from domestic consumption will be used to increase during the summer months the production of cheese and the production of condensed milk, both of which are usually imported foods and both of which we shall certainly require next winter. In addition to reducing the consumption of domestic milk—I include in domestic milk milk supplied to catering establishments—I propose to require bakers and flour confectioners to dispense with the use of milk. I propose to continue the ban on the use of fresh cream, to continue the ban on the use of milk in the manufacture of synthetic cream and, in the manufacture of ice cream.

I am taking these precautions against the demands that we may have in the future. There is every evidence that we shall have during the summer more milk than we require for normal domestic consumption, and I think it is proper that I should use that surplus of milk for what seems to those who advise me to be in the best interests of the nation. In process of doing it I shall have to disturb many trades. I have already met the traders concerned and I am bound to pay tribute to the good will with which they have met me, although in many cases it does result in the partial closing down of those trades. But national interests are bound to override personal considerations of this nature, and I count myself fortunate that the trades which are to have their interests so affected have come forward so cordially in supporting this measure. I have given your Lordships, I am afraid, a rather lengthy outline of our milk policy because it has an immediate effect on the consideration of the Perry Report. When the noble Lord, Lord Perry, went into his survey of the milk trade, neither he nor I had any idea that the conditions of that trade during this recent period and during the immediate future would be anything approximating to what they have proved to be. I am sure that he himself will therefore have felt no surprise in finding that His Majesty's Government are unable to accept the Report. I am glad to see the noble Lord is present to-day. I hope he was here at the beginning of my speech, when I paid a tribute to the work that he had done for us.

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