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Volume 462: debated on Friday 18 March 1949

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Snow.]

4.31 p.m.

I wish to refer to the derationing of sugar. According to the trade, it is estimated that the total world stocks for 1948–49 will turn out to be 31,024,000 tons, compared with 30,409,000 tons in 1939–40. There is no question of a world shortage. The only fear is a world surplus. On the one hand we have the home consumer. We have the young, the old and the middle-aged, all wanting more sugar. On the other hand, we have the willing producer unable to find a market for his sugar. It is absolutely incomprehensible that where there is a surplus of sugar, on the one hand, and a great shortage being experienced by hungry consumers on the other, something should not be done about it.

I do not know why this Government always resist all these moves. During nearly the whole of last year I was fighting to get jam taken off the ration. It affected almost all my constituents at Evesham—the growers. It was only after weary months of delay that the Government at last acceded to that request. I am quite confident that the Government will in the not far distant future accede to this request, but why not now? The answer is always mixed up with the dollar question. It is not a dollar question at all. It is really one of plain commonsense, of getting here from the non-dollar areas supplies which are available, and which will be increasingly available. In other parts of the world, such as Holland, there is more intelligence. Holland unhappily is no longer a rich country, but she has derationed sugar and set a good example to us here.

Last year there was an exceptionally fine beet sugar harvest in this country. It is now estimated to produce 547,000 tons of sugar, a record, as against the original estimate of 480,000 tons of sugar. It is not only a question of the consumption at home. Exports would also be assisted. I do not wish to detain the House, as our Sitting has been extended for half an hour beyond the usual time, but I have a letter here from one of the best known manufacturers of ginger ale and various other mineral products, of which I will read a short extract. I do not wish to give the name, but I will willingly give the letter to the Minister afterwards if she wishes to have it. The letter states:
"We are permitted to buy all the sugar we want for foreign trade, and the foreign trade shows signs of recovery but the complaint everywhere is of our prices, which are about double what they ought to be. We find ourselves undersold in South Africa and Australia. One big firm of steamship owners say that they can buy cheaper in New York than in Southampton. One of the reasons for our prices being so high is because our export trade has to carry far too large overheads."
Well, of course it has, because the turnover at home is not of the extent it would be if sugar were available for these mineral water manufacturers.

These people have a household name. I have no financial interest in them, but they have a household name. Before the war the quality of their products was absolutely first rate. They can only retain that quality it they get sufficient sugar. From what I know of them I am sure that they would rather shut down than send out a shoddy product. I could speak at considerable length on this subject, but I do not think it is necessary. I hope that it is a matter which the Minister will not attempt to dismiss, because it cannot be dismissed. There are hundreds of thousands, or even millions of people in this country, both young and old and middle-aged, all wanting sugar. There is an absolutely certain world surplus, there is no question of that. We must be able to relate that world surplus to the wants of hungry people in this country.

We know and certainly the Parliamentary Secretary, who is a doctor, knows that sugar gives energy. It is health giving, and it gives variety to many dishes and puddings and cakes, all of which are wanted now. Only yesterday we were told that the fresh meat ration would be cut down to 8d. It may be difficult to maintain that owing to the difficulty the butchers will experience in cutting eight-pennyworth of fresh meat. We shall probably have to have it once a fortnight. Surely, therefore, we should give the hungry people of this country more variety by giving them more sugar. If that is to be done there is no time to be lost in doing it, and I hope that the Minister will give me a favourable reply.

4.37 p.m.

The hon. Member for Evesham (Mr. De la Bère) has put Questions to me on many occasions and after he has put supplementary questions he has frequently said my subsequent answers were, "very unsatisfactory." I agree with him that those interchanges on a matter of this kind have been unsatisfactory. That is why I welcome this opportunity to give him the details of the sugar supply position as it affects this country today. Sometimes his attitude to me in the House makes me think he feels that I experience some sadistic pleasure in having to retain this particular ration.

After my experience yesterday in being called upon to administer what I consider was a very unpleasant pill to the country, it would give me the greatest satisfaction to be able to come here this afternoon and sugar that pill by telling the hon. Member for Evesham that we are about to de-ration sugar.

He is quite right about the world supply. I do not deny that there is sugar in the world that we could buy; but we should have to spend dollars on it, and the hon. Member for Evesham cannot have it both ways. He cannot demand that we should spend dollars, and on the other hand support the policy of my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. If he were logical he would come to this House on the Adjournment and demand the reversal of the Chancellor's policy. But when my right hon. and learned Friend explains to the House how our trade position is improving, when he gives details of the exports and the export drive, and our success in economising on imports and so on, I am quite sure that the hon. Member is one of the first to applaud.

We shall never get back to prosperity through austerity. The perpetual treadmill of austerity forced on people who are hungry for something which is surplus in the world, will deaden all men's efforts. I appeal to all humanity throughout this country to do something to get rid of this absolute nightmare of austerity. I shall certainly press for its removal whenever I get an opportunity.

It is difficult to reconcile the hon. Gentleman's views with his support of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. On every possible occasion he should tell the Chancellor, as he tells me, that the policy my right hon. and learned Friend is pursuing is the wrong one. The views he has expressed today surely are not in line with the views, let us say, of Members of the Government of the United States of America, the administrator of E.C.A., who say that our policy is the right one, I have had to bring up this matter because the most important part of the hon. Gentleman's argument is that the sugar is in the world; let us use dollars for sugar.

If the hon. Gentleman reads his speech in the OFFICIAL REPORT tomorrow, he will find that now he is retracting. If the hon. Gentleman says that we should only get sugar from non-dollar areas, I can assure him that we are approaching every country in the Commonwealth and soft currency area which has sugar to spare and offering to buy their exportable surplus. That is why I now intend to give the hon. Gentleman the details. I have no intention of evading the issue. I have no intention of simply dealing in generalisations. I want to give the figures so that during the weekend the hon. Gentleman can go home to Evesham and digest them. Then perhaps on Monday he may see me and say, "Well, after all, you were right and I was wrong."

I suggest that we deal with the current requirements and the supply position so that the hon. Gentleman will be fully aware of the amount of sugar we need for consumption in this country now and what the supply position is. We require for our domestic and manufacturing consumption this year 2,035,000 tons of refined sugar. I hope the hon. Gentleman will bear in mind that these figures are for refined sugar. The figures for raw sugar would be much higher. To cover this amount we estimate that we shall get from the home-grown crop 544,000 tons. We are to import from Commonwealth sources 1,150,000 tons and from dollar sources 90,000 tons, making a total of 1,784,000 tons. There will also be an additional import, against diversions to Canada, of 279,000 tons. That brings the total to 2,063,000 tons refined. That is the amount we need in this country for domestic consumption and for the manufacturers and to provide a small margin. As I have said, all available supplies in the Commonwealth and soft currency countries are bought by my Department.

I will come to the question of Holland later.

Let us consider the estimated consumption of sugar if that commodity were derationed. The prewar consumption of sugar for all purposes was 2,180,000 tons. The mid-1939 population figure for the United Kingdom was estimated by the Registrar-General at 47.7 million. In December, 1948, the civilian population figure, including the mercantile marine but not the Services, was 49.4 million. This figure is a 4.2 per cent. increase over the pre-war population figures and we estimate, therefore, that the requirement of sugar in the current year would be about 2,271,000 tons. We must, of course, have regard to the change in the consuming habits of the population—the higher purchasing power and so on—and because of that we estimate that unrationed requirements today would be 2,325,000 tons (refined).

There is another point on which I am sure the hon. Member would agree. If sugar were de-rationed tomorrow, the housewife, quite rightly, would want to re-stock. Housewives have lived from week to week so far as their rations are concerned and there would, therefore, be a great deal of re-stocking, possibly, we believe, to the extent of 50,000 tons. We have also to consider re-stocking by manufacturers and caterers and, taking this into account, we feel that it would not be safe to de-ration without a margin of 200,000 tons to cover the re-stocking. This means that in our view it would not be prudent to de-ration unless we had 2,500,000 tons. I would remind the hon. Member of the first figure which I gave him of the estimated supplies—2,063,000 tons.

The hon. Member has often said to me in the House, "What about the big stocks? Why not disclose the big stocks and use them?" He may know that sugar stocks fluctuate and that the stock position at any given date is no guide to the amount available for immediate distribution. He will agree that such things as harvests and shipping have to be taken into account. Two or three ships may come in laden with sugar and the stocks at that time may appear very high, but a period may elapse during which no ships come in and stocks may then drop. The hon. Member also knows something about beet sugar and he knows that beet sugar is harvested and refined within a period of four months. At the end of that period there appears to be a big stock in the beet sugar areas, but that has to last over the 12 months and at the end of the 12 months the stock is very low. We cannot, therefore, judge by stocks. That is the position in this country.

I agree with the hon. Member that there is sugar in dollar areas, but we feel at the moment that we are not in a position to spend our very scarce dollars on extra sugar.

—he would remember that I said we were not going to spend dollars on meat.

Let me now turn to sugar supplies in European countries, because the hon. Member has often mentioned this. He has mentioned Holland. I have looked up the sugar position. In Italy they are self-sufficient in sugar; in Belgium they are nearly self-sufficient; in Holland, the same position obtains; in France they are largely self-sufficient, although they are importing a little from dollar sources; in Switzerland they are importing supplies, but they have no currency difficulties; and in both Sweden and Denmark there is still partial rationing of sugar, although those countries are self-supporting. The hon. Member might well say, why are those countries self-sufficient? I want to remind him of the prices of sugar in those countries in prewar days. In France it was possible to pay the equivalent of 9d. a pound, and their consumption of sugar per head was something like 50 per cent. of the consumption in this country.

That is the position and I hope the hon. Member will appreciate that I have not tried to evade the issue, that I have not tried for one moment to keep back any figure from him. I want to convince him that we are only too anxious to de-ration those commodities which have been rationed over a period of years. I am fully aware of the fact that housewives are weary of rationing and I have no need to remind him that it would ease the burden of my Department and certainly would ease the burden of my right hon. Friend and myself if we could do as he wishes.

4.50 p.m.

There are one or two questions I should like to ask. Is the right hon. Lady really certain that we are getting all the sugar we can from the West Indies? Surely it is known that the West Indies would like to sell us more sugar and make more available for us? Is it not possible to get sugar from the Dutch East Indies? The right hon. Lady talked of 279,000 tons—I think it was—that had been sent to this country, and she used the curious phrase "against diversions to Canada." Would she explain what that means? Does that mean that we are now getting sugar from the West Indies that previously used to go to Canada, and if so, are we getting all the sugar from the West Indies that previously used to go to Canada? Is there no possibility of getting that? Is not one of the great difficulties regarding increasing the ration of sugar the fact that it is subsidised? Can the right hon. Lady say something about that? She estimates, supposing the additional sugar were made available to take the ration off altogether, that there would he an increased consumption of 300,000 tons. What does that mean in terms of cost of subsidy?

There is one question I should like to ask. In view of the possibility of expanding exports, which would be in accord with the policy of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the President of the Board of Trade, would the right hon. Lady have a fresh review made of the position in which the high grade mineral water manufacturers find themselves today?

4.52 p.m.

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her figures, for this is the first time I have been able to appreciate the full position, but something very disturbing emerges from them. It appears that almost all the European countries are almost self-supporting. It appears that there is a large surplus of sugar in the dollar areas. That, I imagine, means Cuba and the Philippines. What are they to do with that surplus? If they have a surplus and there is no one to buy it—and we should like it and do not buy it—they will reduce production. Is that a sensible way of dealing with international trade? They may want motor cars, for instance. There must be many things of which they are in need. If we stick out for this restrictionist method and say, "We are not going to offer you anything for your sugar," then that same thing will happen that the Socialist Party made such a song and dance about between the two wars—the raw materials will be thrown into the sea. We know that the United States have now all the sugar they want. What other markets have these people? There is a vast increase in world supplies. This will mean a cut in production in those places if we do not come to some arrangement whereby we can take their sugar. In such circumstances, the seller will take almost anything rather than throw his goods away. Have we really explored this thing properly?

I should like to reinforce what the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. N. Macpherson) said—how quickly can we expand sugar imports from the West Indies? I very much fear that the reason why the ration is not increased is not at all because we cannot make some bargain with the Cubans and Filipinos for their sugar, but exactly what the hon. Gentleman the Member for Dumfries suggested. that it would put an extra burden on subsidies, and the Treasury do not want that.

4.54 p.m.

I thought I made it quite clear, in answer to the hon. Member for Evesham (Mr. De la Bère), that we are getting sugar from all the Commonwealth and soft currency areas; indeed, we have asked them to send their exportable surpluses which we are prepared to buy. The question about Canada is quite simple. We have bought sugar for Canada, and we have sold it to Canada for dollars. We do not lose dollars. The hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. N. Macpherson) raised the question of the subsidy. I presume he is suggesting that if the subsidy were taken off there would be plenty of sugar and we could de-ration it.

I mentioned the subsidy because it is obvious that if the sugar ration is increased the cost of the subsidy will increase and that may act as a deterrent on the Government giving any increase.

I can assure the hon. Member that that factor does not bear weight with the Chancellor of the Exchequer at all. The hon. and gallant Member for Antrim (Colonel Haughton) asked us to look at the position of the manufacturers again. Yes, we will look at the position of the manufacturers again. The argument of the hon. Member for Chippenham (Mr. Eccles) is that there is plenty of sugar, people want sugar and we are not buying. What are we going to do about that? Surely that argument applies to all sorts of other foods. The hon. Member may argue that there is plenty of canned salmon in Canada which people in this country would like and Canada wants to sell. But we cannot spare the dollars; it is most unfortunate. There are other dollar foods which are no doubt available, but the position is that we have to economise. Members opposite cannot press our Department and ask us to buy dollar foods and at the same time support the policy of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The hon. Member for Chippenham, if I may say so, makes very sensible speeches on occasions, no doubt because of his medical background. I do not believe I have ever heard him condemn the policy of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He cannot support that policy and then come to me and ask what we are going to do about this sugar, telling us that we must buy it even if it costs dollars.

I have had a certain amount of experience in negotiating trade agreements, and the one thing one can always keep cheerful about is when a country has a real surplus of the kind that I think must exist in Cuba. I am not suggesting we need pay dollars for this sugar. If proper and sensible buying is done with Cuba, I think they will take our goods and we shall get the sugar. The right hon. Lady probably does not remember how the sugar industry in Cuba was ruined before the war, when the National City Bank of New York virtually became the owner of the industry. I think that some sort of arrangement could be come to, and that not enough is being done.

I do not remember the hon. Member sending us a letter telling us how he would approach Cuba in any different way to the approach of our business men. He has to remember that we are advised by business men, many of whom he knows. I do not think Sir William Rook will mind me mentioning his name, as it has already been mentioned in the House. He is highly respected in the business world of sugar, and he knows how to handle this business as well as the hon. Member. I do not think the hon. Member has certain business wrinkles which Sir William does not possess, but if he has perhaps he will let us know. We are anxious to accept any constructive suggestion or any ideas for a new approach.

Will the right hon. Lady at least admit that sugar will be thrown away, which is a quite intolerable position?

I will certainly not admit that. The hon. Member seems to have forgotten that there is full employment in many countries. He ignores the fact that hundreds of millions of people in the world have a higher standard of living. He tells me that all this sugar is being wasted, but this is purely hypothetical. I am suggesting that there are plenty of buyers because people are demanding a higher standard of living in these days.

There are not plenty of buyers. I am not convinced. I am not satisfied. It is all thoroughly unsatisfactory.

The Question having been proposed after Half-past Four o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at One Minute past Five o'Clock.