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Milk Sales (Half-Pint Bottles)

Volume 655: debated on Thursday 15 March 1962

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Motion made, and Question proposed,

That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Finlay.]

10.44 p.m.

I do not wish to detain the House unnecessarily at this late hour, but the matter I wish to raise is one of some importance to my constituents and to those of my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Ginsburg) and my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Morley (Dr. Broughton). It concerns the delivery of milk, retail, in half-pint bottles.

I remember when milk used to be delivered at my home in the morning, having been taken from the cow that same morning, and in the evening after having been taken from the cow in the afternoon. I admit that that is going back over many years. The war came along after that. Steps were taken to eliminate the necessity for several milkmen to visit one street, and in order to bring about more efficiency the retailers of milk came to a common agreement. But we have now reached a rather serious situation, which, to some extent, is affecting most of the country. It is the refusal to supply milk in half-pint bottles.

I live in my constituency and I continue to get milk delivered by the Leeds Industrial Co-operative Society. But already the Express Dairies has stopped delivering milk in half-pint bottles in West Yorkshire. It is serious because the dairy has a monopoly. When I have inquired why other milk suppliers do not come into the district I have been told that there is a gentleman's agreement, and so the customers are at the mercy of the larger suppliers.

I am all in favour of having a pint of milk a day. But we must bear in mind that pensioners and people with very limited incomes, including spinsters, cannot afford to buy a pint a day. The suppliers suggest that they should buy a pint of milk every other day. If the milk is to be delivered every two days, it will be at least sixty hours old. I think that that is very unfair. To take the argument to a logical conclusion, why not stop using pint bottles and deliver the milk in quart bottles? The argument about increased efficiency would hold good and there would probably be more profit for the supplier.

I attended a large meeting of pensioners and I have spoken to the dairy people who argued about the loss of bottles and the question of cost. I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to understand that the pensioners and others are becoming very militant over this matter. That is why, having asked Questions on the subject, I thought that it should be debated in this Chamber.

I have received a number of letters in connection with this matter, and an indication of the intensity of feeling on the subject is revealed by the fact that in Nottinghamshire thousands of women have banded together to fight this pernicious system. I received a letter from a milk dealer who wrote:
"On reading the article in the Yorkshire. Evening Post re the stopping of half-pint bottles of milk I was delighted to hear of your concern. I have recently bought a milk business in Outwood and am greatly concerned, along with my colleagues, in this area about the whole business. We approached Craven Dairies. Leeds, to supply us with milk but much to our dismay they told us that they have a gentleman's agreement not to deliver into this area."
My hon. Friend the Member for Dews-bury and my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Morley are interested in this matter. I am informed that the Ossett Borough Council, the Dewsbury Borough Council, the Normanton Urban District Council, the Dewsbury Trades Council, the Spen Valley Trades Council, the Ossett Chamber of Trade, and the South-West Federation of Townswomens' Guilds, which includes 24 guilds with 2,000 members, and a number of welfare organisations in the area, are concerned.

Where do we go from there? I have received a letter from the Parliamentary Secretary telling me that we could not debate the legality of selling milk in one-third pint bottles in this debate. I thank the hon. Gentleman for that note. What he says is quite true, but I hope that he will do what he can to expedite the introduction of new weights and measures legislation to make that possible.

I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to tell us what we can do. As it is, we are in the grip of a large monopoly. If the Government were to subsidise the pensioners and the spinsters so as to enable them to buy a pint of milk a day, I would have no objection. If the retailers were prepared to reduce the price, I am sure that the people concerned would take a pint of milk each day. As it is, in very many cases they have very limited incomes and are flatly told that they have to buy their milk a pint at a time or go without.

Many of these people cannot afford refrigerators, and that means that in the summer time the milk they buy goes sour. The milk we get today is not altogether fresh; in some cases, it is 24 hours or 48 hours old when it is delivered. If the present situation is allowed to continue it will be a very serious matter for the people for whom I am speaking, and anybody interested in public service should take cognisance of it.

10.51 p.m.

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Normamton (Mr. A. Roberts). The action of Express Dairies (Northern) Ltd., in discontinuing half-pint milk bottling has caused very grave concern in my constituency. Like my hon. Friend, I have received numerous protests on the subject. I have had representations from the council of the county borough of Dewsbury, from the mayor of Ossett, on behalf of old people's welfare organisations, from the Dewsbury Youth Council, from old people's welfare organisations in Dewsbury, and from the local milk retailers as well. Those representations are on an all-party basis.

The issue is a very serious and human one. Whilst statistics do not give the full pictude, it is worth pointing out that according to the Ministry of Labour's figures the average pensioner spends about 3s. 5d. per week on milk. Therefore, to the average pensioner, the ending of half-pint bottling is not an academic matter. It is very regrettable that Express Dairies (Northern) Ltd. took this action unilaterally and without prior consultation with the organisations in the area. However, I am pleased to say that the firm has recently responded to the considerable local and national pressure that has arisen, and, according to a letter I have just received from the Town Clerk of Dewsbury, it has agreed to supply milk in half-pint measures in cartons for the summer months at 5d. per half-pint. The prospect of this debate has, there-fore, already served a very useful purpose.

The picture is still not yet wholly satisfactory. Even if we allow for the price concession made by the milk retailers to old-age pensioners of three half-pints of milk to be charged at the price for a pint and then of a half-pint, the supply of milk in cartons in the summer months will cost pensioners another 6d. per week, to which must be added another 2½d. or 3d. as a result of the increased milk prices announced today. An extra 9d. a week is quite a substantial amount for pensioners to have to pay.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton has said, I hope that this debate will prevent any piecemeal attack by the milk companies, area by area and constituency by constituency, aimed at ending half-pint bottling.

The Minister can help in this matter. He can use his influence, especially with the Milk Marketing Board, and with the chemical and packaging companies, to explore the possibility of using non-returnable cartons, perhaps of a plastic kind which, if manufactured on a much larger and national scale and not purely a local or constituency scale, could be substantially cheaper than the cartons which are promised for the summer months.

Finally, as my hon. Friend said, the Minister could legalise the ⅓ pint, which is available to schools, but is not a legal measure at the moment because of the delay over the Weights and Measures Bill. This debate has served a useful purpose. It has indicated the value of pressure of this kind. It has also shown that there are positive steps which the Minister can take. I hope that he will say something about it this evening.

10.56 p.m.

My hon. Friends are to be congratulated on raising a matter which may seem small but which is important to a certain section of the community. As my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. A. Roberts) said, the danger is that we may be in the grip of a large monopoly which may become indifferent to the needs of pensioners and people who could be affected by the cessation of half-pint milk bottling. One of the great privileges of the House is that the hon. Members can on the Adjournment raise matters which affect human beings. These questions may not seem to people outside the House to be political issues, but my hon. Friends have raised a question which should be examined.

I hope that the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dews-bury (Mr. Ginsburg) will be followed up. An approach should be made to the Milk Marketing Board and to the chemical and packaging companies. They could do something about this. I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic, because we think that this is an important issue. I know that the Minister will be sympathetic, because I know him as an individual. I hope we shall have a satisfactory answer.

10.57 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. W. M. F. Vane)

The hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. A. Roberts) was very courteous. He told me in advance the gist of the argument he wanted to deploy this evening. This has not only made it easier for me to reply, but has also made the debate much more valuable, because he has raised an important issue. Here I shall declare my interest. I not only sell milk. I also drink it. I hope that there is nothing which prevents all people, old and young, from drinking as much as they want.

The supply of milk in half-pints has been raised at Question Time on a number of occasions. It is in some areas a matter of great concern. It is a wider question than that of any particular area. It is on this basis that I should like it to be considered this evening.

The hon. Member for Normanton made a plea particularly on behalf of retirement pensioners and others living alone who want to buy only half-a-pint of milk at a time but find themselves unable to do so. That is the gist of his case. I am sure that we all agree with the hon. Gentleman about this. At various times we have all, when we have been alone in London, experienced the same difficulty. Either we cannot get half a pint of milk, or we get more and waste it, which is part of the difficulty the hon. Gentleman has mentioned.

We must none the less preserve a sense of proportion, because it is not the case that half-pints are unobtainable everywhere. Many dairymen are willing to supply them, either to all their customers or to those whom they know are in special need of this service and will take it regularly. On the other hand, sometimes a dairyman finds it uneconomic to supply half-pints of ordinary pasteurised milk, but is willing to supply the T.T. or the homogenised milks, which are slightly more expensive. I certainly would not deny that in some places it is difficult or impossible to buy half-pints, but this is by no means the situation in all parts of the country. Although I gather that in one particular area there has been some difficulty, we hope that that difficulty will be less by next summer.

As the hon. Member for Normanton said, the extent of the problem depends on whether or not one has a means of keeping milk fresh a day or two longer if one must buy it in a larger quantity. There is, too, the question of convenience. Some people find it just as easy to buy their milk in larger quantities, while others do not. It is undoubtedly becoming more rare to find this truly difficult situation because, as the result of the care taken in handling milk at all stages and modern techniques of heat-treatment, the keeping quality of pasteurised milk has improved. The hon. Member spoke about throwing milk out after 24 or 48 hours, but the keeping quality of milk today is better than it was when it was taken straight from the homely cow into a jug and straight to one's doorstep which, although it did not help the milk to keep fresh, enabled people to buy it in any quantity they desired. As I say, the modern techniques, with heat-treatment, certainly improve the keeping quality of milk, and there is no doubt that ordinary pasteurised milk, as sold, should keep for two days.

The National Institute for Research in Dairying, when I visited their establishment some time ago, showed me a bottle of milk that had been bottled ten years previously.

It looked all right, although they did not offer it to me to taste. Nonetheless, new techniques and continuing experimentation have undoubtedly improved the keeping quality of milk, and sterilised milk keeps considerably longer than ordinary milk. I appreciate that it is not obtainable everywhere and that not everyone likes the slight difference in taste. I mention this to show once again how modern methods of handling are steadily improving the keeping quality of the milk which is delivered to us.

The National Dairymen's Association advise that if the milk delivered does not keep as it should the householder should complain to the dairyman because he is just as interested in his customers as any responsible trader should be. The hon. Member for Norman ton mentioned the special difficulties for retirement pensioners. The problem here is really the same with many people who live alone or, perhaps, those who are carefully counting their pennies and are not anxious to buy something which will go to waste. This is by no means the problem of the elderly, but one for many people who live alone.

When referring to the problems of the pensioner it should be remembered that the National Food Survey did not show any substantial difference in the average quantity of milk drunk by the elderly as against those of us who are still a bit younger. The hon. Member has spoken mainly from the consumer's angle and criticised the decision of one of the dairy firms serving his constituency to discontinue the supply of half-pints.

This one dairy company is affecting the whole of southwest Yorkshire; the Express Dairies.

I was coming to that. He has spoken of a monopoly and has just again reinforced his earlier argument regarding the influence of one firm over a large area as creating a wide measure of inconvenience for a great many people. I hope I am not disappointing the hon. Member by saying that if he has any evidence of what he calls a monopoly—although I think he used the word in a general sense and not in a technical one—he should send the information to my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade who will then be able to decide whether there is a prima facie case for reference to the Monopolies Commission. That is the purpose of that organisation. The hon. Member will not expect me to prejudge a situation of that nature; it would be wrong to do so. There is, however, machinery for dealing with the situation and for dealing with what the hon. Member called "gentlemen's agreements", which have to be registered with the Registrar of Restrictive Trading Agreements.

In contrast to what I have just said, which is in a sense critical, milk distributors have a fine record of service. I do not suppose that there is any other country in Europe, possibly in the world, where the dairy industry provides a better service throughout. It is alive to its responsibilities and, like any business, alive to the interests and requirements of its customers. When the industry does not supply half-pints, whether by wholesale or by retail, whether by delivery or, perhaps, in the shops if somebody cares to fetch the milk, there must be some difficulty in the way of doing so.

Let us consider the viewpoint of the industry. There has been a rapid advance in mechanisation of this business over recent years and nowadays bottling is customarily done by fairly complicated machinery. To switch from filling pints to filling half-pints can be a costly operation. The hon. Member spoke about cartons and different types of containers. We would all be anxious to see milk delivered in the most convenient form. We would not discourage or stand in the way of someone who wanted to do something novel but none the less practical. That, however, is purely a matter for the trade, because we do not stipulate the container in which the milkman should deliver his milk, provided that it does not offend against the various regulations.

It may be that where the number of half-pints in demand is not numerous, a change to half-pints could create great disruption of the bottling processes. The hon. Member suggested that we might soon have milk in quart or larger bottles. I was speaking this evening to somebody back from Canada who said that it was normal there to have three quart bottles a week in the household. It was assumed, however, that everybody had some form of refrigerator in which to keep it, and I believe that people have to fetch the milk. That is quite different from the form of service to which we are accustomed in this country.

I am told that the machinery of which I was speaking can fill 400 bottles a minute. The time involved in the changeover to half-pint bottles can therefore be an expensive matter. We must recognise that as with other commodities, if consumers in general are to get the full benefit of the economies which modernisation, mechanisation and streamlined processes offer, they must accept some measure of standardisation. They gain in one way, but perhaps they lose a little in another way.

On the retail side, it costs virtually as much to deliver half-pints as to deliver pint bottles. The difference in cost is very small. None the less, I would not argue that the demand of the few for a special service—in this case, those who prefer half-pints—should necessarily be sacrificed. It happens all too often nowadays that the interests of the few somehow get sacrificed to the preferences of the many.

This is a matter in which all the considerations must be weighed one against the other. The individual distributor knows the circumstances of his business, the interests of his customers and the extra costs of meeting their special interests. In the end, he is the only person who can say whether any particular variation of the service is worth while and who can make the decision.

I am sure that the hon. Member would like me to say where the Government come in in all this. The Government have no power to force a dairyman to deliver half-pints or bottles of any other size. In fact, they have no power to force a dairyman to deliver milk at all, or, for that matter, to require the dairyman to stay in the business if he does not want to stay in it. The suggestion that he should be required by law to carry half-pints or third-pints in order to meet a possible demand from customers is not, I think, reasonable or practical. The present requirement under the existing Statutes is that the retailer shall have his milk in half-pints or multiples of half-pints. The third-pint came into use because of the school milk service and, as yet, is not a legal measure in distribution generally.

Who knows what the future of our weights and measures law may be? In the discussions on the Weights and Measures Bill in another place, there was a proposal to legalise the general sale of milk in third-pint bottles, and perhaps that will come. But that, of course, would be permissive, not mandatory.

The Government are responsible for prescribing the maximum prices of milk as it is normally sold. Vending machines are excepted. Although I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman wanted to make his point that the retail price of milk is likely to be slightly increased from, say, this summer onwards, I did not follow his calculations, and I thought that he was putting a worse construction on the situation than it deserved.

There is no provision at present in the price control Orders for a higher price to be charged for milk in smaller quantities. The pint is the quantity which we consider. There may be two opinions about this. The Committee on Milk Distributors' Remuneration under the chairmanship of Sir Guy Thorold, whose Report was published last January, recommended that the Orders should be amended so as to permit a reasonable additional charge to be made for milk sold in small quantities. My right hon. Friend is considering this now along with the other recommendations in the Report. A number of organisations have had to be consulted, and it will be some time yet before decisions can be reached. At present, milk in a half-pint bottle is normally sold at half the price of the larger quantity, even though we must admit that, in proportion, the costs are somewhat greater.

At this stage, I only say that, while it may be reasonable to allow an extra charge to be made for milk sold in small quantities, it should not be too hastily assumed that, as a result, all dairymen would as a matter of course deliver half-pints, and, of course, in some respects this small additional charge, which could be the outcome, would not necessarily be welcomed by those who are at present enjoying the service of half-pint deliveries at a fractionally lower price. I mention these points to show that it is not as easy a matter as all that, and there are points to be looked at from both sides.

I have referred to the sale of third-pints, and in a letter which I wrote to the hon. Gentleman I tried to show that legislation would be necessary to legalise the general sale of milk in third-pints. I think that you, Mr. Speaker, would rule me out of order if I attempted to discuss that matter further now.

The hon. Gentleman may not feel that the current position is entirely satisfactory, but—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at thirteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.