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Milk

Volume 721: debated on Thursday 25 November 1965

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10.9 p.m.

I beg to move,

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Milk (Great Britain) Order 1965 (Amendment No. 1) Order 1965 (S,I., 1965. No. 1701), dated 13th September, 1965, a copy of which was laid before this House on 23rd September, in the last Session of Parliament, be annulled.
Mr. Speaker, if it is your pleasure, and it meets the convenience of the House, may we take at the same time the second Motion,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Milk (Special Designation) (Amendment) Regulations 1965 (S.I., 1965, No. 1555), dated 3rd August, 1965, a copy of which was laid before this House on 12th August, in the last Session of Parliament, be annulled.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. After the condemnation of Government slackness which we have just heard, I commend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary and the Ministry for the courtesy they have done to the House by issuing—a most unusual occurrence—a correction with the first of these Statutory Instruments. I congratulate them on the meticulousness of the Ministry in going through it, correcting an asterisk and adding a dagger to it. I thank them for their courtesy in issuing the correction.

Both these Statutory Instruments are important because they herald a completely new type of milk. I do not think that it will have an immediately far-reaching or enormous effect on the milk industry, but it has a potentiality to cause quite a revolution in the handling and delivery of milk. I refer to the new process called "ultra high treatment". This is a process by which milk is treated at very high temperature for a very short time after being homogenised, so that housewives can keep it for a considerable time—for 14 to 28 days—at normal room temperature, during which it will suffer no deterioration in quality.

The advantages are clear. The process could deal with some of the thorny problems of delivery not only in the towns but in the countryside and could well foreshadow the possibility of exports of milk if there is further development. It opens new vistas for handling and treating milk in years to come.

Of course, all depends on this new process being successful not only in being profitable but in attracting the housewives. There have been instances in the past where new types of milk, such as sterilised and homogenised milk, have taken some time to be accepted by the housewives as a suitable type of milk as compared with the untreated or pasteurised milk to which she was accustomed. It takes a considerable time to build up sales of new types of milk because there is an automatic consumer resistance, particularly when the taste may be different.

It is with this build-up period that we are particularly concerned through the first of these Statutory Instruments. This lays down the price. Obviously, if the trade finds that it is uneconomic and unprofitable to produce the milk because it is unlikely that it will attract wide sales, it would be reluctant to go on processing it. That would be a great pity, for it has great potentialities. I understand that the present position is that U.H.T. milk is being sold by one large concern in cartons and that considerable sales are being built up, so it has not been unsuccessful. But up to now it has been sold only in cartons and in very few places. I believe that London is, in fact, the only place where one can get it.

In the first of these Statutory Instruments we deal with the milk when bottled and the price will be 10d. This is something entirely new as opposed to the sale in cartons. The Order lays down very onerous conditions—quite rightly—for handling the milk. The bottles have to be sterilised to a very considerable degree and care in handling must be absolutely scrupulous. The processing, testing and the way in which samples should be taken is carefully gone into. It is quite right that it should be strictly regulated and controlled. I entirely agree with all this, but I am sure the Parliamentary Secretary will accept that this is not a cheap business at all. It is expensive. If one is going to have a small throughput, then quite obviously the capital expenditure on research and development of this new process is going to be remarkably heavy. It is essential that it should be built up as fast as possible. I query whether the ½d. by which I am going to ask the Parliamentary Secretary to increase this 10d. milk would act as a deterrent. I do think that the extra ½d. on this small amount would make it a little more remunerative to the processors and the dairies who are going to handle this new milk.

There are not going to be many of these dairies which will be able to deal with tilts, because the cost of installing equipment is high and it will have to be restricted to those large dairies, such as Unigate and so on. They are going to be mainly concerned with the handing of this milk. The small dairies will not be able to face the cost of installing the plant and other equipment which is going to be necessary for the processing of this patricular milk.

The principle which the Government and the Parliamentary Secretary are putting forward in these Orders is that one should start at a low price and then as the sales continue, if they do continue, build up put a higer price on later. I am advocating the opposite, that a reasonable price would be 10½d. and that as sales build up and costs come down so the cost of the milk comes down. I am reinforced in this argument because, as the House will know, this type of milk is essentially a homogenised milk given extra treatment at high temperatures. The price for homogenised milk is 10d., and yet the price of this U.H.T. milk for which extra processes are involved and in which extra strictness and supervision in handling is necessary is to be 10d. also. It seems completely illogical that a base commodity should cost 10d. and then a commodity which flows from that should cost exactly the same and that there should be no addition for the extra processes and costs which are involved.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will address his mind to this. I do not think that it is an enormous amount to ask, and I do not think it will affect the sale of the milk. It will not stop anyone buying it. I am quite certain that the good salesmanship of the roundsman will help the sale of the milk and that he will be able to sell it, whether it is 10d. or 10½d. But it will make that little difference to those who are operating the process and it is, therefore, important that it should be sold.

I want to turn to the most extraordinary way of dealing with these Regulations. In these two Statutory Instruments, 1701 and 1555, we are amending two other Regulations, the 1963 Order and the 1965 Order. I should have thought that in amending the 1963 Milk and Dairy Regulations we should have added homogenised milk. The position does not seem to be very clear at the moment, but perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary will refer to it when he comes to reply.

If I may turn to Statutory Instrument No. 1555, it seems to be very complicated, but one point worth mentioning here is that I cannot understand why the Government thought fit to bring in something completely outside the U.H.T. milk. On page 2 of the Regulations sub-paragraphs (g), (h) and (i) deal with matters completely different from U.H.T. milk. They are dealing with untreated milk, the type of label required and the writing on it, and it seems extraordinary suddenly to push in untreated milk in the middle of Regulations dealing solely with a new type of milk. I wonder why the Parliamentary Secretary thought it necessary to do it in that way and whether he would not agree that it is a bad principle in Regulations dealing with a new type of milk to bring in a few bits and pieces concerning untreated milk.

Untreated milk now has to be
"conspicuously and legibly labeled or marked",
whereas before it simply had to be labelled "Untreated Milk". Probably there was some good reason for bringing in untreated milk, but I cannot see what it is.

Sub-paragraph (l) on page 2 is dealing with the sampling situation. The old regulations of 1963 which are being amended by the present Regulations were concerned with measures of a quart or less for sampling purposes whereas the present Regulations talk about a measure "not exceeding one quart".

I do not see why the Parliamentary Secretary should include this change here, but perhaps there is some reason why it should be changed that I have not heard about.

Then we turn to the Schedule on page 3, and I wonder what is meant in paragraph 4 of the Schedule by the expression "the colony count". If one turns on to Schedule 2, which is set out on pages 4, 5 and 6, one sees what it means, and it is very complicated.

Is it to be assumed that each dairy handling this particular type of milk should have facilities on the premises so that they can carry out these testings? Will the food and drugs authorities in charge of the Regulations, in other words, the local authorities, have the power to check to see that they are properly carried out? I very much doubt it. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary can tell us what is the position.

I return to my main point in moving the Prayer, that we on this side think that the Government are doing this the wrong way round. I have the greatest doubts whether we are going to see the new milk being sold throughout the country at the proposed price. Both sides of the House want to see it given a fair chance because of its great potentiality, but I doubt very much whether at a price of 10d. the dairies will be able to make a go of it. Because of their costs, it will make it more difficult for them to do so.

Whilst I know that the Parliamentary Secretary cannot amend the Regulations, I hope that he will look at the position carefully to see whether he has his costings right, whether the margins, which are the key to the whole thing, are really as he thinks they are, and whether it would not be possible to increase the price by a halfpenny to 10½d. so that the milk has a better chance of being handled properly by those dairies which have the courage and resources to take it up.

10.25 p.m.

I wish to intervene only briefly. We are concerned with amending the Milk Prices Order, by prescribing

"a maximum price of 10d. per pint for Ultra Heat Treated milk."
I think that somebody might have devised some happier name with which to christen this new child.

I share the view expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Scott-Hopkins), that the fixing of the price, bearing in mind the cost of the new processes, is very much open to question.

The point that I really want to make is that the House might reasonably imagine that a maximum price of 10d. means a maximum of 10d. But in 1965 a great many things are different from what they seem to be, and I know that many of my constituents will have to pay more than 10d. a pint. Back in the summer I made inquiries of the Minister of Agriculture about this point, and I was told that the maximum retail price of milk which is laid down in the Milk (Great Britain) Order is regarded as being sufficent to cover the cost of delivering milk under normal urban conditions. The sting is in the tail—"under normal urban conditions". In other words, these are maximum prices in some places, but not in others, and this is the nub of my complaint. Such is the march of progress that the further I get from Parliament Square, and the more I get out into the green fields and among the cowsheds and milking parlours, the greater is the likelihood of my having to pay more for my pint of milk.

During the Summer Recess I noticed a reader's query in the Daily Mail dated 21st August. It was very simple, and it read:
"How much does the housewife pay for the delivery of milk to her door?"
The editor replied:
"There is no delivery charge to the customer for milk. Maximum milk prices—at present 9½d. a pint for ordinary pasteurised milk—are laid down by Parliament and milk is the only foodstuff controlled in this way."
It is clear that the editor of the Daily Mail is such a busy man that he rarely has time to get outside Northcliffe House.

In Wiltshire this year the story has been very disquieting indeed. More and more districts are finding that the Government's so-called maximum price for milk means precisely nothing. This trouble started in the Woodford Valley, which many hon. Members know, a crucial and important area, and spread to Amesbury and the military centres of Bulford Camp and Larkhill. I mention this because these areas are not isolated, remote and rural. They are thickly populated, and yet the Minister declines to intervene. The position, therefore, is that a family living in one of those districts trust pay a delivery charge, or give up drinking milk. There is no choice of supplier. The customer can take it or leave it. The surcharge is a ½d. a pint, and if that sounds a modest surcharge, let me remind hon. Members that it quickly works up to £5 a year for an ordinary family.

The story does not end there. Only last month a fresh imposition was placed of my constituents, beginning on 3rd October. A dairy imposing the surcharge now makes an additional charge for those who wish to continue taking a modest half-pint of milk a day. The half-pint bottle of milk costs 5d. That is now discontinued. The old person living alone can continue to have his half-pint, but it is in a carton, and the price is 6d. Sixpence is a lot of money, bearing in mind that more than 87 per cent. of the milk in the bottle is pure water. That extra penny works out, for this single person, at over 30s. a year.

I am not criticising the dairyman; heaven knows, his costs have risen this year. They have soared because the cost of the motor vehicle licence has risen, petrol tax has risen, and National Insurance charges have gone up. I need not list all these things, but they are the direct result of Government action, and tonight it is the Government that I am criticising. I criticise them for prescribing "a maximum price" for milk in the full knowledge that the phrase is fraudulent.

The Minister has power to prohibit additional charges; instead he chooses to turn a blind eye to them. I therefore ask him to take another look at them. I ask him to pitch his maximum price at a level which will allow the dairyman a decent livelihood and then, having chosen and fixed his maximum price, to ensure that the word "maximum" means what it says. It is a gross injustice that in those very districts where milk is produced—in these villages where men get LID at 5 o'clock in the morning to milk the cows—the cost of a pint should be higher than the price paid by housewives here in Westminster.

10.32 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. James Hoy)

We have just listened to a speech that had absolutely nothing to do with these Statutory Instruments.

Never mind whether it was a good speech or a bad one; it has nothing to do with these Statutory Instruments. Indeed, it was a little humbug, because when my right hon. Friend sought, in controlling the price of milk at the Price Review, to make a fair award, every hon. Member opposite complained that he would not permit the price of milk to rise further—everyone, including the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Scott-Hopkins). He knows that the Government have no control over these milk delivery charges. If the local milkman in a rural area, has to make this charge to cover his costs, he is permitted to do so, and it is nothing to do with this Government. It went on under the previous Government, and under the hon. Member when he was Parliamentary Secretary.

That is why I say it is humbug for hon. Members to use this opportunity to complain that milk ought to be dearer in certain areas and that the milk deliverer is not allowed to charge more, and at the same time to complain if the other man—the recipient—has to pay more for it. The speech had nothing to do with the Statutory Instruments, and the hon. Member knows it.

I did not realise that the hon. Member had usurped the authority of the Chair in order to decide what is in order. He has the wrong end of the stick. My hon. Friend said that in his view this price of 10d. was not enough; it does not give a reasonable profit to the dairyman. He was, therefore, asking the hon. Member to look at the question and to raise the price so that the dairyman could get a decent profit. The Parliamentary Secretary need not get excited about this and throw accusations across the Floor of the House.

I do not mind giving way, but the hon. Member should not distort his hon. Friend's argument. His hon. Friend was complaining about the present milk deliveries, and the hon. Member has just told the House that this milk is not delivered in rural areas. He said that it is confined to the city. He cannot have it both ways—[Interruption]. What the hon. Member for Cornwall, North wants has nothing to do with what is happening. That is what his complaint was about. Nobody knows better than the hon. Gentleman that it was a dishonest argument: he knows that it has gone on for years, including the time when he was a Minister.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for saying that we were courteous in presenting these Statutory Instruments. We are always ready to do so. That has been the reputation of the Ministry of Agriculture and its officials, who came in for some criticism a week or two ago. I have always, even before I became a Minister, found them courteous and helpful.

The Milk (Special Designation) (Amendment) Regulations do two things. An important part of our safe milk policy today is the arrangement whereby milk sold by retail must be sold under special designation. The use of a special designation provides a guarantee to the producer that the milk has been produced under strict hygienic conditions and, in the case of heat-treated milk, that the appropriate heat treatment has been applied. The 1963 Regulations in effect prohibit any form of heat treatment other than pasteurisation and sterilisation. They also prescribe the ways in which heat treatment, bottling and labelling shall be done for those milks and make similar provision for untreated milk sold to the customer.

I will now take up the hon. Gentleman's point about untreated milk. Untreated milk has to be shown as such clearly, and these simple Regulations provide that it be so shown on the container. The Regulations aim: first, to make it permissible to retail milk which has been heat-treated by the new U.H.T. method; second, to define the new permitted process; and third, to specify a sterility test, the "colony count test". This is done by the local authorities, so any responsibility is theirs.

The Regulations are the result of several years' consideration in consultation with the milk industry and the public health and medical authorities and there is general agreement among these experts that the Regulations are desirable. I should explain that the U.H.T. method of heat treatment produces a milk which is virtually sterile, and is just as safe as the older methods, pasteurisation and sterilisation. Our medical advice is that it is no less satisfactory from the nutritional standpoint, which most people agree is just as important.

As the hon. Gentleman said, great claims have been made for this milk, but, in this context, these are rather beside the point. The case for the Regulations is that they remove, subject to proper safeguards, an unnecessary prohibition and give the dairy trade permission to use the U.H.T. method of heat treatment if it wishes. U.H.T. milk, if correctly handled, has a longer life than milk heat-treated in other ways, so clearly, there may be a great future for it. If it fulfils some of the hopes placed in it, these Regulations will have done the nation a great service.

It is true that the Order specifies 10d. a pint as the maximum price for U.H.T. milk. The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Michael Hamilton), who has now departed, complained that we were not allowing them to charge more, and the hon. Member for Cornwall, North said that it should be not 10d. but 10½d. In other words, it is suggested that we should charge the consumer more. I admit that there is this difference of opinion between 10d. and 10½d. All I would say to the hon. Member for Salisbury is that he cannot complain that we do not fix the price high enough and then complain that we do not take powers to prevent high charges. We have taken what we believe to be a fair price for this milk—10d. a pint.

Let it be clearly understood that without this amending Order, the position in law would be that U.H.T. milk would be subject to a maximum price of 9½d., since it would count as "ordinary" milk in the terms of Schedule 1, Table A, of the main Order. We have fixed a price of 10d., rather than 9½d., on the ground that the U.H.T. process involves homogenising the milk. It would be illogical to require U.H.T. homogenised milk to sell at a lower price than the usual pasteurised homogenised milk for which the price is 10d. The evidence at present available to us suggests that the extra ½d. a pint will fully make up the extra costs involved in the U.H.T. process. Further, if a carton is used, the general provision permitting a reasonable extra charge will apply.

The trade first asked for the price to be free of control. This we felt would not be justifiable, since U.H.T. milk will, we hope, lead to economies in milk distribution in general. We are confident that it will. This is inconsistent with the idea of dismissing it as an inessential item which need not be controlled. At a later stage of negotiation, the people concerned asked for 10½d., but this request was not supported in detail. As the Minister had to come down definitely in favour of one price or another, he settled for the 10d. which the evidence seemed on the whole 10 support, but let me make it clear that he also informed the trade that he would review this decision if they came back with a detailed case for a higher price. The maximum price for the new milk must at this stage be provisional, and will be reviewed later—whether the trade asks for a review or not—when costings data become available. I should not like to specify a number of months, but whenever the data is there it can be reviewed. Meanwhile, on available estimates, the trade have a ½d. margin which should fully cover the extra cost of processing, with some reserve towards other expenses.

My right hon. Friend has given this assurance to the trade, and I hope that the House will be assured that we are looking after the interests not only of the consumer but also of the producer, because this is very important. We want to be fair to both. If the outcome shows that the price may have to go up a little, then we shall not hesitate to bring in an Order to carry that out.

10.43 p.m.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for the last words which he used. I am sorry that he started in such a bellicose way, which was quite unjustified. There are two points which I must confess still confuse me. He is quite right in saying that the 1963 Regulations dealt with sterilised and pas- teurised milk, and with untreated milk. The homogenised milk came in the 1965 Regulations. I feel that this ought to be included in the 1963 Regulations, too, or to be dealt with under separate process. The present procedure is making a nonsense of the situation. We are not dealing here with ordinary or untreated milk but with homogenised milk which has had an extra process at a higher temperature, and it is logical that this should be included in the amendment of the 1963 Regulations, on the subject of designation. It is a pity that this has not been done, and it is why I think there is a little confusion.

The Minister said that the extra ½d. would make up the extra costs involved in the U.H.T. process. Since this involves homogenising the milk, the hon. Gentleman should say whether the price for homogenised milk is too high or what else is the case. After all, he is asking dairies to sell this milk at the same price as homogenised milk.

Is it not right to say that in the discussions with the Ministry it was said that the price should be 10½d. rather than 10d. because of the extra process involved? However, I am grateful for the assurance the hon. Gentleman gave and no doubt, when the dairies have had an opportunity to go into the matter—to run the necessary costings and so on—he will consider the matter again.

I thought it wrong for the hon. Gentleman to say that the dairies could not make out a case because, naturally, they did not have the detailed costings. They know the capital cost of the process and how it will bear on, say, one pint of milk, but they have no idea at present of the final result because this is an utterly new thing and they cannot take the matter further until the bulk runs are under way.

The dairies are taking the homogenised product and adding an extra process. I should have thought that it would have been better to start with 10½d. and, if necessary, then reduce it to 10d. We all want to see this milk sold in quantity, but I have doubts whether this will happen. Meanwhile, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for saying that he will review the matter later.

Question put and negatived.