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Butcher, Gravesend (Deferment)

Volume 395: debated on Wednesday 1 December 1943

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"Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Major Sir James Edmondson.]

After that political storm of considerable dimensions over the release of Sir Oswald Mosley perhaps the House will forgive me if I deal with a subject of lesser importance to the community as a whole but of some consequence to the person involved here. I will occupy only a few minutes so as to give the hon. Member a chance to reply. On east October, 1943, I raised the question with the Minister of Labour about the case of an employee of the Gravesend Co-operative Society. I would not pursue it further but for the fact that it raises a question of some principle. The position in brief is this.

A man was employed early in this war by the Gravesend Co-operative Society as a butcher and cutter on a travelling motor-van. He had to cut and distribute meat to about 680 registered customers. The Ministry of Labour and National Service called up that man, and found a substitute for the employer. The substitute was then called up, and the Ministry of Labour found still another man to take his place. Consequently, there were two changes. Now the present substitute, Mr. L. G. Stevens is threatened with one of two alternatives. He must volunteer for employment with what is called N.A.A.F.I., or he is posted automatically into the Forces. He is 36 years of age, and grade II for military purposes. I want the Ministry of Labour to believe me when I say that this man, with his travelling butcher's shop, distributing meat over a wide rural area covered by his employers, is doing quite as important a job as if he were employed by N.A.A.F.I. That is the essence of my complaint.

I guess what is happening. The Services bring pressure to bear on the Ministry of Labour to provide so many men for the Forces, but I think the time has arrived for the Ministry to realise, as they have never done up to now, the importance of the distribution of food in this country. I know they will turn round and say, "We have consulted the Ministry of Food." Tribute must be paid to the Ministry of Food for two things—the allocation of supplies and the rationing of the supplies that are available. In between those two points, however, the Ministry of Food, in my view, have absolutely failed. They have never taken the slightest notice of whether there is enough staff in the food shops to distribute the available food that is to be rationed. The people employed behind the counters in the food shops are at their wits' end. They have been called up, they have been substituted and substituted again, up to four or live times. The Ministry of Labour would not deal with miners or engineers as they are dealing with these men. The Government are conscious of the power of the trade unions in those occupations, but because shop workers and clerks are very badly organised the Ministry of Labour think that they can do as they like with them.

I want to repeat what I have said more than once before, and to impress upon the Ministry once again that food is the first munition of war. It is no use talking about guns, bayonets and battleships if the people are not properly fed. We must keep adequate staffs in our shops to properly distribute the food that is available. The hon. Gentleman may say, "What about the hardship committee?" The hardship committees in some parts of the country are really less concerned about these problems than are the Ministry themselves. I want to appeal therefore that the Ministry will come to the aid of those who are concerned with the distribution of food. There is not the slightest sense in abolishing this travelling shop with 680 registered customers. The Min- istry cannot find a substitute for this man with the result that these hundreds of customers will have to travel by bus and train to the centre of the town and spend time, money and petrol in so doing. Consequently, once again, I appeal to the hon. Gentleman to take note of what I have said about this problem of food distribution.

I admire the pertinacity of the hon. Member over this case, which is not one from his own constituency. He has been in correspondence with the Joint Parliamentary Secretary.

I raised this case because the man concerned is a member of my own trade union.

The hon. Member has asked Questions and Supplementaries on two occasions of the Minister, and he now has the Adjournment. I am not making any complaint about that. It is an indication of our democratic principles and system that in all the exigencies of the call-up of millions of men one individual case can have all the attention focused upon it that the hon. Member has brought to bear. I suggest to him that if many men were treated in the same way the whole process would come to a stop. I am afraid I have very little to add to the replies which the hon. Member has already had. He had a very full letter stating the facts from my hon. Friend.

With regard to the general question of the call-up from food shops, the hon. Member suggested that the Ministry of Labour never realised the importance of the delivery of food. I would like to take exception to that and to tell him that we take the utmost care to consult with the Ministry of Food before we decide on our general arrangements of call-up, and in individual cases, such as this one, we have been in direct touch with the local Ministry of Food official and have consulted him as to the facts and as to whether the man should be called up or not. We have no evidence that the arrangements we have made with the Ministry of Food have in fact held up or in any way seriously incommoded the meat distribution of this country. If that were the ease, we would hear about it from the Ministry of Food, and from this House at once and put it right, but until there is any evidence that the distribution of food has been held up because of our man-power policy, I for one am not prepared to accept the strictures of the hon. Gentleman. I suggest that in this matter the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The hon. Member will not expect me in the two minutes at my disposal to go through all the difficulties of our man-power problems at the present time and to stress how desperately important it is that we should use every man or woman to the best possible advantage on war work.

In this case I appreciate the privilege which a certain number of people have—I believe the hon. Member's figure according to my information has rather exaggerated the number of customers—of having meat not only delivered to the door but cut up by this butcher in front of them; this can no longer be continued unless another substitute is found. I am assured that it is an exceptional privilege not enjoyed generally by people in this country, and certain arrangements can be made if desired by the local co-operative society to cut up the meat before de- livery and send it out in an ordinary van. It will at any rate ease the inconvenience that otherwise might be caused. We cannot fight this war without some inconvenience. We endeavour to see that the inconvenience or hardship which is bound to be caused by our call-up system is mitigated as far as possible. But in this case—and in cases like it—I cannot possibly hold out to the hon. Member that at a time when every available man and woman is so desperately required for the war effort we can maintain such little amenities as are afforded by this travelling butcher's van when we are assured by the competent authority, which is the Ministry of Food, that the delivery of food will not be vitally or seriously affected if this man is withdrawn. I am sorry, that I should have to give the hon. Member such a discouraging answer, but it would not be fair to him to suggest that in this case we can relax the regulations we have arranged with such care in the interests, and with the acceptance, of the Ministry of Food and the parties concerned.

It being the hour appointed for the Adjournment of the House, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.