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Unreasonable Withholding Of Foodstuffs Bill

Volume 65: debated on Saturday 8 August 1914

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I beg to move "That leave be given to introduce a Bill dealing with the unreasonable withholding of foodstuffs."

I was unable yesterday to give formal notice of the introduction of this Bill, but the Chancellor of the Exchequer hinted very broadly to the House that it might be necessary to endow the Board of Trade with powers with respect to the unreasonable withholding of foodstuffs. May I say as a preliminary after making very wide investigations throughout the whole country we have not, so far, seen ground to believe that the process of cornering is in general application, but there have been cases in many parts of the country which have led to great hardship, especially to the poorer classes, and that has been accentuated, if I may say so, by the panic and greed of better-to-do people who have really disgraced themselves by placing long queues of motor-cars outside the stores and carrying off as much provisions as they could persuade stores to part with. This panic is over. I hope we have seen the last of it. There is bound to be a rise in the price of foodstuffs in the United Kingdom during the next few weeks, and that rise if it is reasonable will also, I should like to point out, have a salutary effect, for it will attract to the United Kingdom foodstuffs which might otherwise go to other countries. I am glad to say that any such rise as there has been has already been in operation, and that foodstuffs are now coming more freely to the United Kingdom than a week ago we could have anticipated. After consulting the best information to which we have access, we came to the conclusion that if the Board of Trade were endowed with the same powers for requisitioning foodstuffs as the naval and military authorities are endowed with for that and other purposes, that it would have a steadying effect on public apprehensions, and if it were understood that our powers were only to be used where there was deliberate or unreasonable withholding of supplies we have been advised, and it is our unanimous opinion, that it would not in any way check the present salutary movement of foodstuffs to this country. I need say no more to the House, except to read the single Clause:—

"If the Board of Trade are of opinion that any foodstuff is being unreasonably withheld from the market they may, if so authorised by His Majesty's Proclamation, may generally or as respects any particular kind of foodstuff, and in manner provided by the Proclamation, take possession of any supplies of foodstuffs to which the Proclamation relates, paying to the owners of the supplies such prices as may in default of agreement be decided to be reasonable having regard to all the circumstances of the case, by the arbitration of a judge of the High Court, selected by the Lord Chief Justice of England."

That follows very clearly the Naval and Military precedent, and would be applicable if the need arose, but before I ask leave to introduce the Bill I ought to add that the greatest of the wholesalers and of the retailers have shown a ready willingness to fall in with such arrangements as would prevent the exploiting of the public. This afternoon the millers are meeting me at the Board of Trade. The Home Secretary has had conferences with others who have the control of large supplies, and I hope that the arrangements which have been made will enable us to dispense altogether with any exercise of the powers which we now seek; but these powers we think will be necessary and useful, and I hope the House will allow us to pass the Bill through all its stages to-day. We propose to make the Bill applicable to the present war.

With regard to the price of foodstuffs, I wish to call the attention of the right hon. Gentleman to the fact that the greatest danger in the matter has arisen through the Government buyers. It has come to my knowledge this morning that the Government buyers went to the meat market to buy meat on Tuesday and offered £80 a ton for meat which was sold at £65; and I have heard that they have paid 45 per cent. more for meat than other buyers at the time were paying for it.

If this is correct, it has done more to raise the price of meat in London this week than anything else, as the importers are now withholding meat knowing that they will get these prices from the Government buyers. It has had the effect of raising the price of meat by 3d. in the pound. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will take notice of that.

I have nothing to say against the provisions of the Bill, which seem to me to be extremely reasonable, and the assurance of my right hon. Friend that the Board of Trade will be very discreet in putting the Bill into operation ought to be entirely satisfactory. But I may take the opportunity of saying that too much interference in this matter may have an exactly opposite effect to what is intended. The publication of a list of prices this week, for instance, was, I think, a little indiscreet and quite unnecessary. It suggests that much higher prices may be paid than those which are generally being asked at present. I think there is very little reason to anticipate any panic. If the arrangements with regard to trade which, if I may say so, have been excellently made by the Government, acting in conjunction with the great manufacturers and bankers of the country, are carried out, as there appears to be every prospect of their being, I do not think we have any panic to fear at all. But nothing is more likely to bring about panic, and really cause difficulty to the poor, than rather hasty interference on the part of the Government or an attempt to regulate prices. [An HON. MEMBER: "Not at all."] I am only suggesting that there is a danger on that side. I hope the Government will be as careful as they possibly can in what they do.

I would like to say in one sentence that I am quite sure the Government are alive to the conditions which must govern their use of this Bill. I give it my most cordial support, and I associate myself with every word the right hon. Gentleman, the President of the Board of Trade, has said.

Will this Bill give the Government power to deal with those private individuals who, during the course of the last few days, have laid in unnecessarily large stores. I think it is rather an important matter that these people should be dealt with.

I wish to say exactly the same as my hon. Friend. I quite realise that this Bill does not, and cannot, deal with these people; but I hope the Government will not shut its mind to the possibility of something to prevent anything of the kind again taking place. It is really a scandal that a few people should use the present necessity to save themselves at the expense of the poor. I am sure the whole House would support the Government if they thought it necessary to strengthen the criminal law to deal with such cases.

Perhaps I may say at once that the traders in conference with us have given an undertaking that they will in no case supply any of their customers with more than the normal supply.

I think it is unanimously agreed that such a Bill is necessary. I was struck by the question asked by the right hon. Gentleman opposite as to whether the operation of this Bill is limited to the duration of the war. [HON. MEMBERS: "The President of the Board of Agriculture said so."] Yes, I heard the right hon. Gentleman say so.

I heard the right hon. Gentleman say so, but I want to ask whether there are words in the Bill which contain that limitation? When the operative Clause was read out I did not hear words to that effect.

Although Clause 1 is the operative Clause, Clause 2 does limit it to this extent: "That this Act shall have effect only while a state of war exists between His Majesty and any foreign country."

I hope it was a slip on the part of the right hon. Gentleman to say that we must expect an increase of prices. It is an appalling thing to think of the various consequences: people will hold back. Even after the Government price for bacon was fixed at 1s. 4d. a lb., 1s. 10d. was charged to poor people for quarter pounds, and other small quantities, and it is hitting heavily the poverty-stricken people. The big trader and the little trader between them are squeezing out these poverty-stricken people, who cannot buy sufficient in ordinary time. I hope the right hon. Gentleman does not mean we must expect an increase, otherwise many traders will hold back for that increase.

I am sorry if I have given that impression to the House; the rise has already come. But we do expect that the operations over which we have been spending a great deal of time and the rapid arrival of foodstuffs from all parts of the world will generally decrease prices.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman if he has any objection to having this Act posted in prominent places in various parts of the United Kingdom? The reason that I ask that is that it will then be seen not only by the large traders but by the small traders, and everyone will have an opportunity of understanding what the Government really are doing in this matter.

I suppose, as was said by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham, that we may assume that the Government will be in constant communication with the wholesale provision and traders' Committee and other trade bodies so that nothing shall be done which will discolate the trade unnecessarily and tend to defeat the object of the Government. May we assume that?

The Cabinet Committee on Foodstuffs has been in constant communication with all branches of the trade. I may say that on a question of policy, our desire has been not to interfere with ordinary trade at all, but to leave the traders to conduct their own business. We do, however, require the power behind us to enable us to see that no individual trader takes advantage of the admirable spirit which the great bulk of the traders have shown.

Will this apply to farmers as well as to general traders? I think there is no doubt that some of them have been charging excessive prices for wheat and meat. I rather gather from the right hon. Gentleman that the Bill applied to traders generally, and I think it ought to be quite clearly stated that it also applies to farmers who have wheat and meat to sell?

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. McKenna, Mr. Montagu, and Mr. Runcizman. Presented accordingly, received the first time, and ordered to be printed. [Bill 374.]

Question, "That the Bill be now read a second time," put, and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House will immediately resolve itself into the Committee on the Bill.—[ Mr. Runciman.]

Bill accordingly considered in Committee.

Mr. LYELL in the Chair.

Motion made and Question proposed, "That Clause 1 stand part of the Bill."

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman, the President of the Board of Trade, could now give me an answer to my question.

Yes. Any farmer who sells is technically a trader I understand, and therefore the Bill will apply to him. I hope the farmers are not going to be unreasonable because of the fact that their stocks this year are more valuable than ever before.

Would the right hon. Gentleman consider whether "cornering" might not be most effectively stopped by publishing the names of the "cornerers."

In Ireland we are very anxious that the action taken by the right hon. Gentleman should apply to us, and I rise to impress upon the right hon. Gentleman the fact that at the present time in the south of Ireland we are quite unable to send our butter, eggs, and other perishables to this country. That is not alone a great loss to the south of Ireland, but it is equally a great loss to this country because it must have a very serious affect upon the price of such articles here. As every one knows, Ireland supplies considerably the largest quantity of butter and eggs that comes to this country, and at the present time we are unable to send such articles across because the service between Fishguard and Rosslare has been stopped. I do not want to enter into the propriety or otherwise of stopping this service. I am sure it was not done without special reason, but I put to those responsible for stopping that service the serious effect that stoppage must have, not alone upon Ireland, but upon the supply of food to this country. I trust that as soon as possible the service will be again re-opened.

In the circumstances in which we are placed there must inevitably be dislocation of traffic, but I have no knowledge of the stoppage of the traffic referred to, and I do not see any great reason for it.

I wish to support the remarks made by my hon. Friend, the hon. Member for West Kerry. Evidently the Vice-President of the Department in Ireland is not aware that the service both ways, day and night, between this country and the south of Ireland, has been completely stopped. The hon. Member for West Kerry accurately stated the facts of the case. Practically the whole of the county of Kerry is studded with creameries. The butter is fresh butter which will only keep for about twelve hours, and we will now be compelled to send this creamery butter through Dublin, which would mean forty-eight hours before it can reach the London market. We have in the town of Tralee two large bacon factories, and the stoppage of the Rosslare service means that they will be tied up, and food will be much scarcer and dearer in this country. It ought to be quite sufficient for the War Office to appropriate half the service, and leave the other half open for ordinary traffic so that foodstuffs from the south of Ireland could reach the English market. Otherwise, it will mean not only a great loss of money to the farmers, but it will mean a great shortage of food supplies in this country. I think that is one of the things which the War Office ought to look to and take some practical steps to give us back at least half this service, If this is done it will be a great convenience to Ireland, and a very great deal of farm produce can be placed on the market here.

May I ask if this discussion is in order, because this Bill does not deal with communication between England and Ireland?

I would like to remind the House that there is also a very large trade between this country and Ireland, and it is quite opportune to remind the Government that by keeping open communications with Ireland, which exports more food than any other country, they can do a great deal to regulate prices. I hope this fact will be remembered by the Board of Trade.

I have had no complaint whatever from any part of Ireland with regard to this service. [An HON. MEMBER: "It was stopped last night."] I should fancy that the English people areas much interested as the people in Ireland in keeping the service open both to and from Ireland, because a large amount of foodstuffs is sent here from Ireland. After what has been said by hon. Members opposite I will make earnest representations on this point.

I think the hon. Member opposite who raised this question ought to be praised rather than censured. We want to have this opportunity of raising such questions. I think a very great responsibility rests upon right hon. Gentlemen sitting on the Treasury Bench, because they are practically taking over the control of this country at this time, and we hold them responsible if they do not take the right steps. The English people, and no doubt, the Irish people, are a long-suffering race—[An HON. MEMBER: "The British people"]—yes, the British people, and a great many steps have been taken which we think are extremely unreasonable, but because the emergency is so great we submit to them. A grave responsibility rests upon the President of the Board of Trade now in regard to these matters. [HON. MEMBERS: "Agreed."] I urge that the Government ought to expedite all their provisions for bringing food supplies to this country. [HON. MEMBERS: "Agreed."] Yes, I know we are all agreed on these subjects, but "what we want does not happen, and there is an instance of it. It seems to me that the business of the President of the Board of Trade is to see that this service is renewed as soon as possible.

If the Committee is under the idea that the Government has interfered with this traffic, hon. Members may be relieved at once on that point, for we have had nothing to do with the interruption of this service. We have no responsibility in the matter, and we want to see that every source of our food supply is not interrupted. If there has been any interruption of this service, it has not been done by us.

May I say, on this point, it was only last night that I was in the head office at Paddington inquiring into this matter. I asked a question definitely of the Principal Superintendent, and he told me it was done directly under Government orders. I asked, "What are the reasons?" and he replied, "I am a Government official. I dare not speak. We do not know when we shall be opening."

I desire to say that so far as the Board of Trade is concerned we have nothing whatever to do with it.

Will the right hon. Gentleman, now that representations have been made to him, see who is responsible? It is not the railway company. It may not be the Board of Trade. It must, I think, be the War Office.

The question was only brought to my notice a quarter of an hour ago. I am having inquiries made as to the fact. I cannot do more than that, except to say that, as far as my right hon. Friend and I are concerned, we heard it for the first time when we came down to this House.

I should like to say, for the information of hon. Members, that at the present time the whole of the railway and steamboat communication of the United Kingdom is under the control of the Government, and the way in which they are exercising that control we must all agree is admirable. It is being done through a committee including the traffic managers of the various railway companies. These gentlemen are sitting four times a day. The duty thrust upon them is very important, seeing that they have to control the traffic of the whole of the United Kingdom at this particular time. I hope, therefore, hon. Members will bear this in mind.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill reported without Amendment, read the third time, and passed.