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Meat Supplies

Volume 487: debated on Tuesday 24 April 1951

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With permission, I should like to tell the House how this Agreement will affect our meat supplies. In doing so, may I also add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary, and the other members of his Mission, on the successful outcome of these difficult negotiations?

The Agreement provides for a minimum supply during the next 12 months of 200,000 tons of carcase meat and offals, and 30,000 tons of canned corned meat. The drought in the Argentine during the latter half of 1950 has reduced the amount available in the immediate future, but I am confident that this new settlement will encourage production in the Argentine and lead to greater supplies.

The House will be glad to know that the Agreement provides for a resumption of chilled beef shipments. Because of technical and shipping considerations it will be a little while before shipments are resumed, but during the next 12 months we hope to receive about 23 per cent. of our beef shipments in chilled form. We have, however, advised the Argentine Government that we shall be prepared to accept all the chilled beef they can ship us. The Argentinos are eager to restore this trade, and I am satisfied that they will send us as much chilled beef as they can of top quality and in first-class condition.

The great value of the Agreement to us lies in the fact that we have now been able to get precise arrangements for the shipment of the various types and quantities of meat.

These are the quantities and prices agreed for the main types of meat in the 200,000 tons:
  • Frozen beef "A"—73,000 tons at £126 a long ton.
  • Frozen beef "B"—34,000 tons at £118 a long ton.
  • Lamb—36,000 tons at £130 a long ton.
  • Manufacturing Meat—8,000 tons at £95 a long ton.
  • Offals—14,000 tons at £140 a long ton.
The quantity of chilled beef on the basis of 23 per cent. will be 35,000 tons and the price which has been agreed is £146 a long ton.

At the time the 1949 Agreement was signed there was an exchange of letters providing for a review of meat prices in the event of sterling being devalued, and to meet this claim we have agreed to make a lump sum payment of £6¼ million which in effect means an increase of price on the shipments from January to July, 1950, roughly equal to the price increases that have now been agreed for the next twelve months.

It is intended that shipments of meat should start as soon as possible, and we have made shipping arrangements so that meat should begin to arrive here early in June.

Naturally, public concern will be mainly with the effect of the Agreement on the ration. I am, of course, anxious to give the public the benefit of additional meat supplies when they arrive in the form of an increased ration but, because of the need to rebuild stocks, and of the continued uncertainty of New Zealand supplies caused by the protracted dock strike there, as well as uncertainty about home killed supplies in June, I cannot promise any very substantial increase until the flush of home killed meat begins some time in August.

I hope to make gradual improvement as we go along and as the restoration of supplies permits; but at the moment the only forecast I can make is to indicate the probability of a substantial increase in the meat ration from some time in August.

The new prices agreed with Argentina and with our own farmers for home produced meat represent a substantial increase in the Ministry of Food's payments. To cover these and other additional costs, in view of the Government's decision to hold the food subsidies in 1951–52 at about last year's level, the retail price of meat will soon have to go up. The increase will be about 3d. per lb. on average, but on some kinds of meat the increase will be less and on others obviously more. It will take a little time to work out the new price schedules for all types of meat and it will probably be a month or two before the new prices are introduced.

We shall have to look into this matter with care and attention. May I ask the right hon. Gentleman when he gave the prices, whether they are f.o.b. or c.i.f., which makes a difference?

Am I right in concluding from his reference to the need for increasing the prices of meat very shortly, that in fact there will not be any increase in the amount of the meat ration to housewives until some time in the late summer?

I said that when we knew the amount of the supplies, we would try gradually to make improvements; and I hope that it will be possible by mid-August to reach the estimate which I gave to the House last week.

Has my right hon. Friend made any estimates at all as to how much better a bargain he might have made but for the clamour from the Opposition during the whole course of the negotiations to buy as much as he could, as quickly as he could, at any price he was asked to pay?

Having got a settlement, I do not want to probe these wounds. What my hon. Friend has suggested is very relevant to this situation.

As the price to which the right hon. Gentleman appears now to have agreed seems to be £16 a ton more than the price which he refused in December and there are 100,000 tons less in quantity, would he publish in the White Paper the terms which he refused last December and the terms which he has accepted today?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman's figures are widely erroneous. There is no such difference. In fact no precision was ever given to the alleged offer of £120 a ton. That is rather a mythical figure. The difficulty was to get to know precisely what it meant in terms of supplies. If that figure had meant a large amount of poor quality meat, obviously the average would have been much higher. The price asked for chilled meat at that time was £156 a ton, and we have now settled at £148 a ton.

Indeed, we have now been able to effect, which was the whole cause of the difficulty earlier in the year, precise estimates of the kind of meat we hope to get. On the whole, I think that the statement is one about which we should be happy.

Will the Minister say in what parts of the country he anticipates being able to distribute the chilled beef component of the ration under the present rationing system?

We are quite confident that we can handle, will handle, and are making very special arrangements to handle the chilled beef on the ration. In the early stages it will mean that large industrial areas nearest our main ports will have the main advantage. London, for instance, is going to have rather a better deal than she has had for some time. That is in the immediate stages. But, as we set up the machinery, the whole country will share in the new improved quality of beef.

Will my right hon. Friend take note of the fact that not one Member opposite has paid any tribute to or congratulated the Economic Secretary?

In view of the retrospective fine of £6½ million to which the Minister has been willing to subject himself, will he give us some assurance that next time there are any negotiations we shall not again have a surcharge beyond the figures he has given? Secondly, will he not admit openly now that he missed an opportunity some months ago which he will never catch up with again?

In reply to the second part of the question, that is a matter of judgment. In reply to the first part of the question, this demand was always inherent in the old Agreement. We had to arrive at a settlement on it, and I think that the present settlement of £6½ million is a fair one.

Will my right hon. Friend give some comparisons between the prices he has paid and the prices prevailing for spot buying under private enterprise today?

If I did that it would cause a good deal of interest in the House. If a Question is put down, I shall be glad to give comparative figures.

Is not the right hon. Gentleman a little petty in trying to blame the Opposition for the difficulties of the late negotiations? Will he not be the first to admit that if he had appealed to the Opposition in the national interest to refrain from criticism, they would have done so?

I do not want to be petty, and I do not try to be. I do not think anything I have said has sought to place the responsibility on the Opposition. What I said, and I repeat it, was that the attitude taken by certain organs of opinion, including the Opposition in the House, has not helped us in these negotiations.

I understood that the right hon. Gentleman's contention was that he has made a much better bargain than before. Therefore, he cannot have it that way and at the same time throw the blame on the Opposition. We may run short of meat, but need we run short of logic?

I did not claim that this was a better bargain, nor do I claim it is; but I claim that it is a good bargain in the circumstances, and those circumstances include the attitude of mind exhibited by the Opposition.

Will my right hon. Friend indicate how the prices under this Agreement compare with the prices for similar purchases by other countries from the Argentine?

Are there any penal clauses in this agreement in the event of the Argentine not supplying the amount of beef they have contracted to supply?

I do not know myself of any such clauses, but perhaps it would be as well to await the White Paper.

I think my right hon. Friend said that offal was to cost £140 a ton. Is not a smaller figure being paid for prime beef? Is that not rather unusual?

I am afraid that the word "offal" is rather misleading. It is an awful word which leads people to assume it means something rather dreadful, when in fact it does not. It means such pleasant things as sweetbread and chilled tongue. These offals are meat of high nutritive value. In the late Agreement the price of offal was the second highest, and this price compares favourably with the old price.

Can the right hon. Gentleman now answer the question, which he no doubt inadvertently failed to answer, that was put by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton): whether he will publish in the OFFICIAL REPORT the terms of the proposals which he refused last December in view of the fact that he has given at the Box one selected figure?

I am quite prepared to give all the detailed information possible. There is no reason to hide the facts. That information will be given so far as it can be safely given.

Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to admit, in view of the additional prices being paid per ton, that this is a further addition to the increasing cost of living?