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Clause 9—(Establishment Of Milk Depots)

Volume 65: debated on Thursday 30 July 1914

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

(1) The sanitary authority of any district may, with the approval of the Local Government Board, establish and thereafter maintain depots for the sale of milk specially prepared for consumption by infants under two years of age, and purchase and prepare milk and provide such laboratories, plant, and other things, and exercise and perform such other powers and duties, as may be necessary for the purposes of this Section.

(2) The Local Government Board may attach such conditions to their approval as they may deem necessary.

(who was indistinctly heard): I beg to move to leave out the Clause.

This is the most contentious Clause in the Bill. It introduces the thin edge of the wedge of municipal trading, and I should like to know why the Clause has been produced at all. We know that municipal trading is supported by many hon. Members on the other side, but we on this side decidedly object to it. We do not know where, if once commenced, it is going to stop. In a subsequent Bill you may allow borough councils to open butchers' or bakers' shops, or to do other things which may be to the detriment of the ratepayers. Those ratepayers have heavy rates to pay on their own businesses, and it is suggested that their rates should be used to produce competition against their business. It is most unfair that the dairymen and farmers, who pay heavy rates, should have those rates used to encourage competition in their trade, and possibly to ruin their business. I trust the House will reject the Clause and not allow municipal trading either in lymph or any other commodity. There have already been several lymph depots, and not one has paid its way. Some of them charged a fairly good price for the lymph, but they have all left a charge on the ratepayer. There were depots at Dundee, Woolwich, Finsbury, and Glasgow, but they have all shut up. There are depots still open at Battersea, Liverpool, and Leicester. Why did the Woolwich depot shut up? It cost about £500, and the whole of the fittings were sold in a practically new condition for £25. That is what the Member for Woolwich encourages, and hopes will be established all over the country. At Glasgow the depot was fitted up at a cost of £2,000, and was eventually sold for a trifling sum. There are, as I have said, only three of the depots that were established left.

With such an experience before us, surely it is folly to encourage borough councils, or even to give them permission, to open these depots in order to compete with ratepayers who are milk sellers, and to make losses for the general body of ratepayers! But even the consumer suffers. I have the report of the medical officer for Glasgow, who says that "by far the worst results were in the case of those fed on municipal milk." That is the official result of the Glasgow depot. It may be urged that this Clause is in order to benefit the poor. I think the original idea was that these depots for milk should be able to give free milk to the poorest portion of the community. That is hardly necessary now, because under the Insurance Act the doctors are allowed to order milk free, and it is most extensively done. There are certain milk depots which deliver milk free on the order of the doctor under the Insurance Act, I know from experience, and from the observations of myself and a good many other people who take an interest in these matters, that the people who benefit are really not the poor, but those people who can well afford to buy their own milk, and who like to get something for nothing. They consider that here is an opportunity for them to get it. The poorest people really do not benefit. I therefore object altogether to the Clause. It is unfair to the ratepayers by reason of the competition and by reason of the expense, and it is unfair to the consumers.

I beg to second the Amendment. I feel that the distribution of milk must be subject to the price which has been fixed by free competition. I do think it would be unjust that municipal authorities should be able to trade in milk and thereby and unfairly interfere with the legitimate duty of the milk producer. The hon. Gentleman who moved the omission of the Clause said that it was supposed to be in the interests of the poor. I venture to say that it will have exactly the opposite effect. I know that the production of milk at the present price scarcely pays the producer. If competition by local authorities is set up against them in disposing of this article I am very much afraid it will mean a great curtailment of production. In that case the price will rise, and poorer persons will suffer most in the diminished volume of milk for general use. I believe that this Bill will protect the quality of milk produced. Therefore no one can have any lack of confidence in purchasing milk under this Bill, for they will know that it is as clean and pure as milk can possibly be. There can be no reason for the setting up of these laboratories, for the general body of milk will be pure, and such as can be used without danger by the community, whether they be adults or infants. To meet the requirements and regulations of this Bill will undoubtedly need considerable experience, and occasion some anxiety on the part of the milk producer. Those concerned have done their best to secure pure milk, but as it is found desirable that there should be increased restrictions and requirements the milk producers are willing to submit to them, but they feel that they ought to have free competition, and they do not think that municipal authorities ought to trade in opposition to them.

Objection has been taken to this Clause because, it is said, it will allow the introduction of the thin end of the wedge. That thin end of the wedge has already been introduced. There are a certain number of milk depots at present in operation, though only one has been set up during the last eight years. Previously there were several established. Some of those have been closed. Those that now remain are rather more numerous than the hon. Member stated. There is one at St. Helens which was established in 1899, one at Liverpool; Battersea, Ashton-under-Lyne, Blackburn, Burnley, Lambeth, Leicester, and Sheffield. Except in respect of one or two established under local Acts, the legal position of these milk depots is at present uncertain. The expenses in some cases have been allowed by the Local Government Board under the Local Authorities (Allowance of Expenses) Act, which is a temporary permission given under exceptional circumstances, because of legislation which was before Parliament. It was anticipated that a Clause might be passed into law. Meantime, the Local Government Board used their powers to permit the financing of these establishments. If this Clause is struck out the effect will probably be—I do not say certainly—that several of the existing establishments already carrying on their work would have straightway to be closed. It is not the case cither that all these milk depots make losses or sell their products at the expense of the ratepayers. At Leicester and Sheffield, which provide a supply of milk. It is sold, so I am advised, without any loss to the ratepayer. The effect of these institutions is excellent on the health of the infants. At Liverpool, for example, where there is a milk depot of the Corporation conducted on a somewhat large scale, it has been found that the infants, although they are usually of a poorer physical health than the average, and for that reason have to go to the milk depot, have a much lower death rate than the towns as a whole. The town of Liverpool has a general infantile death-rate of 144 per 1,000; the infants fed at the milk depots have a death-rate of 93 per 1,000, about one-third less. The matter was discussed in Committee at some length; the Committee divided upon the subject, and decided to retain this Clause by 22 votes to 7. I trust that on a general review of the circumstances the House will permit this Clause to remain.

The House knows that I have a very strong objection to municipal trading. I will not go into that at the present moment, but I myself think it is unfair to the ordinary trader, and that it is disadvantageous to the public. However that may be, it is evident from the speech of the right hon. Gentleman that we should not be able to carry the omission of this Clause if we went to a Division. Under those circumstances I would ask the right hon. Gentleman if we do not divide, whether he would be inclined to accept an Amendment which would provide shortly and simply that milk should not be sold at less than cost price at these depots? I do not mean to say that that is my view of the case. I strongly object to municipal trading, as I have said, but it is evident that we cannot carry our point. Therefore I would ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he would accept such an Amendment as I have suggested.

I am inclined to think that that is not an unreasonable compromise. There is a strong feeling in the House against this Clause, and although the hon. Member does not command large battalions here at the moment, I am afraid he will have some in reserve over the way, and that perhaps will lead me to accept the suggested compromise.

I understood the hon. Member who moved this Amendment to say that Municipal depots were not necessary now because under the Insurance Act doctors are able to prescribe large quantities of milk. This Clause, as I understand it, is restricted to infants under two years of age, and it is news to me that insured persons are of that age. Therefore, it seems to me that that argument falls to the ground. May I also point out to the hon. Member that a committee which orders milk for insured persons orders it as an auxiliary; and may I further add that the consumption mentioned in this Clause is not tuberculosis, but another kind of consumption.

It appears to me in the first place that the Clause has nothing to do with the main idea of the Bill which is to get a pure supply of milk. I opposed the Clause in Committee, and I shall certainly do so now. I dislike municipal trading, and I dislike it the more becouse as originally introduced by this Clause, I thought it was exceedingly unfair to the farmer. The farmer might not only be undersold, but in a town might actually be paving rates so that he might be undersold in the business! I admit that the Amendment which I understand the right hon. Gentleman is going to accept takes away my last and chief reason. Therefore, personally, I shall not offer any opposition.

The right hon. Gentleman has informed us of the action of the Local Government Board in relation to municipal authorities who have established depots. Some of these have done so by virtue of powers under special Acts of Parliament. But for the Local Government Board to act as they have done, because they believed that in the future some Bill would pass, appears to me to be going entirely outside their duty. It seems to me that they have anticipated an Act of Parliament being passed—

I am afraid I did not make myself quite clear. Local authorities have, in fact, established these depots. They did not ask our permission. The question came up when the auditor came to deal with their accounts. It was found in some cases the power to establish these was doubtful, and under the powers specifically conferred upon the Local Government Board to meet such cases by the Local Authorities (Allowance of Expenses) Act, we allowed them to continue. We did not disallow the charges, because the matter was before Parliament.

7.0 P.M.

I should have thought in these circumstances the charge ought not to have been allowed, and it seems to me that the Local Government Board were rather slack. Whatever may be the actual merits of this Clause, I think it will be agreed that in its present form it by no means prevents the local authority or corporation incurring such expenses again, and there is also no limit put upon the money that it to be spent, and thirdly, as far as I can read it, there is nothing to prevent the corporation starting dairy farming itself. I think if that is the intention of the Local Government Board the House could hardly agree to it. It may be desirable for municipalities to secure an entirely pure milk supply and to sell specially treated milk, but I hardly think the House would be prepared to give sanction to a corporation to start dairy farming which would compete with the local farmers. I hope if this Clause is finally passed, the right hon. Gentleman will see whether some limit of that kind is not inserted to prevent them starting a dairy farm, and also to put restrictions upon the money that may be spent in the first instance upon procuring plant.

I find myself in disagreement with my hon. Friends who have spoken on this side. I disapprove as much as anybody—generally speaking—of municipal trading, and I admit this Clause does seem to me to go outside the general purposes of the Bill. At the same time, I think there is a good deal to be said for exceptional treatment in regard to the provision of milk for infants under two years of age. I think it would be a great, pity if this Clause was struck out of the Bill, because I know that the shortage of milk for infants of this age does produce a very unfortunate effect upon the children of the poorer classes. I do not think it would in any way affect the position of the producers of the milk. If I thought so, I certainly would support the Amendment to strike out this Clause, but I do not think so, and I think it will have a very valuable result amongst the poorer classes, and that the expenditure involved would be very good from the economic point of view, and I am glad that an arrangement has been arrived at by which this Clause should remain part of the Bill.

The promise of the right hon. Gentleman to accept the Amendment of my hon. Friend behind me has removed a portion of the objections which I entertained to this Clause.

Before we pass from this question I should like to make sure what is meant by the concession to be introduced limiting the sale of milk by the restriction as to cost price. I hope there will not be read into the words "cost price," the price also of the necessary plant for distribution of sterilised milk. When I have seen sterilised milk passing through the streets of Batter-sea, I felt what a splendid investment it is for the health of the people. Whether it be competition with retailing or competition with farming, it is useless to belittle the magnificent work which has been done and which has saved thousands of young lives and which I should be very glad to see spreading in crowded districts.

I do not know whether we all agree with people who talk about the advantages of sterilised milk. I thought the latest view was that it was rather injurious.

It is different when the hon. Member says "treated milk." I think the Clause is open to the construction that corporations might run dairy farms. Will the right hon. Gentleman undertake, when considering the Amendment to be put in, that the Clause should be no longer open to that construction. I do not think it would be at all satisfactory if corporations, instead of buying their milk in the ordinary way from private producers, were themselves able to enter upon dairy farming.

I do not think it is possible that the word "depots" for the sale of milk could be held to bear that meaning. No local authority has yet attempted dairy farming.

I think the words "and other things" in the Clause might be open to that construction.

If I thought there was the least danger of any kind of farming being started by the local bodies, I should be the first to offer opposition to this Clause, but I am bound to say that reading the Clause as a whole, such fears are not founded on facts. I think it appears clear that under this Clause milk would have to be purchased from the farmers, and therefore I do not think that municipal trading is in danger of being introduced in that way. I hope that as the right hon. Gentleman has offered protection that milk should not be sold under cost price, the hon. Member may accept that and withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I beg to move, after the word "sale" ["maintain depots for the sale of milk"], to insert the words "at not less than cost price."

I should like to know what is the meaning of "cost price." Does it mean the net cost of the milk, and not the cost inclusive of the cost of the whole paraphernalia introduced for treating it?

Question, "That those words be inserted in the Bill," put, and agreed to.