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Food Supplies

Volume 961: debated on Monday 22 January 1979

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With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the supply of food to the public during the road haulage dispute.

During the dispute, the public have been able to buy adequate supplies of essential foods. There have been shortages at times of certain commodities, such as sugar, fats, salt and occasionally eggs. I know that the northern part of the country, and in particular the North-West, has faced more trouble than the South. But there has not been anything which could be called a food shortage. Some at least of the difficulties have been the result of people buying more food than usual—although in general housewives have shown great common sense. At present there are good stocks of food in the country at the ports, in warehouses and silos and, of course, continually being produced from our farms, and there are adequate supplies in the shops.

From the start of the dispute, the Government have been in the closest touch with all those involved in or affected by it—the farmers, the wholesalers and retailers, the food manufacturers, the unions—to ensure that there should continue to be enough food in the shops. The contacts have covered not only discussions between Ministers and leaders of industry and unions but also many regional and local meetings to resolve local problems of food supplies. Above all, of course, those in all sectors of the food industry have shown great resourcefulness in overcoming their difficulties.

At the start of the dispute, picketing interfered seriously with the movement of food and animal feed. If picketing were still continuing at its most extreme extent, serious shortages of some foodstuffs would be inescapable. But once the strike became official, the Transport and General Workers' Union sought to give priority to the movement of things connected with the production and distribution of food.

On 18 January, the leaders of the TGWU followed up their meeting with the Government by issuing a code of practice to its members. This again emphasised that picketing should be confined to those parts of the road transport industry actually in dispute, and continued—this is the key section in regard to food supplies:
"in any event, pickets should not seek to prevent, hinder or delay vehicles carrying … supplies, including live-stock, for the production, packaging, marketing and distribution of food and feedstuffs."
It is still too soon to say whether the code of practice will be properly observed. The TGWU and the United Road Transport Union are trying to get the food moving, and my latest information this morning is that the situation is continuing to improve.

I do not wish in any way to minimise the problems we still face, or overlook the possibility that new problems could arise. But if the code of practice becomes steadily more widely observed we may expect adequate supplies to continue. Those are important "ifs". Potentially the situation remains serious, and, after what has already occurred, it may be some time before the full chain of production and distribution returns to normal.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's acknowledgment that the position remains potentially serious, but does not he think that he could have presented the House with a little more detail? There is nothing in the statement which can be said even to resemble news. As the right hon. Gentleman has been unable to give the House very much detail, perhaps I could ask him for his confirmation or denial of certain points which I should like to put to him.

First, is it not right that compliance with the code of practice has been patchy in the extreme, and that dispensations issued in one place have certainly not always been honoured in another?

As regards food for human beings, will the right hon. Gentleman say whether it is the case that one sugar refinery at Liverpool has been closed down and that three others are working at half rate, that the British Sugar Corporation is having great problems about getting beet in, and that this will probably be wasted altogether in the end? Will he confirm that there is also a considerable enduring problem as regards salt, and that the situation on edible oils is very serious indeed? Production at Erith is almost at a standstill and production has stopped at Seaforth.

Is the right hon. Gentleman able to say anything comforting about frozen foods, as it is said that the supply situation will take about seven weeks after the strike ends to return to normal? I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has heard of one particular situation, at Shrewsbury, where I believe Libby's main mill is now completely blocked of supplies and that as a result 100,000 cows, 800,000 poultry and 35,000 pigs are likely to be at risk within 48 hours.

May I also ask the right hon. Gentleman for some further information as to what is happening in the ports, where a very serious bottleneck is developing? Although there has been some improvement at Belfast and Hull, nevertheless at Tilbury no food or feedingstuffs are getting through at all, on the rather extraordinary ground that there are enough in the country already.

I should also like to ask about Purfleet, where deliveries of vegetable oils are down to a mere trickle. At Avonmouth the dockers are due to strike tomorrow, at Liverpool the code of practice is said by the strike committee not to exist at all, and at Felixstowe the port has closed.

That is the framework of information. It is necessarily uncertain because Oppositions do not have available to them the sources which are available to Governments. However, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will deal fully with what I have said and respond to it at an early stage.

The right hon. Gentleman has given me a formidable list of detailed questions which require an answer—[Interruption.]—unless hon. Members do not want an answer to them, of course, which I sometimes suspect. As far as the question of detail is concerned—[An hon Member: "Get on."] I shall when I am allowed to do so. Concerning the question of detail, the position really differs very much, as I said in my statement, in various parts of the country. For example, there is a difference in the situation between the South and the North-West, and there are differences between Scotland, Wales and England. The result is that because of this patchiness—the word that I think the right hon. Gentleman used—it is very difficult, except when dealing with specific questions, to give a general picture, other than the one I have given, which is that supplies of food in the shops are adequate and should continue to be adequate.

Having said that it is patchy, let me deal, first, with the commodities which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned. As regards sugar, the information that I have at present is that the British Sugar Corporation is operating at about 75 per cent. capacity. I do not take the right hon. Gentleman's pessimistic view of the amount of beet sugar from the farms being spoiled. I think that farmers are a remarkably resourceful group of people. I believe that the raw material, the beet, is coming in in a variety of conveyances, but it is coming in.

Salt gave the Government considerable anxiety during the course of last week. But the position has improved enormously during the past two days—really, since the code of practice was agreed by the two unions concerned. There are two unions concerned, the TGWU and the URTU. Now both of them are allowing through a greater quantity of salt, and the situation appears to be improving the whole time.

The supply of edible oils presents a difficulty. I do not want to mislead the House about this. There are great stocks of margarine, and it would be useful if those could be allowed out because that is a bottleneck. I hope that that position will be improved.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned a number of docks. Some, as he very rightly and fairly agreed, have become considerably eased. Hull is a very good example, and Belfast, which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned. Felixstowe, incidentally, is another. The greatest efforts are being made at present to see that the other docks at which there are difficulties are freed, loosened up.

The position is this—and here I return to the very fair point which the right hon. Gentleman made at the start about the patchiness. It is easy enough to formulate precepts which ought to be followed—the priority of movement of food, packaging and so on. It is not so easy always for those to be fully understood at a picket line. It takes some time, and there are sometimes difficulties in communication. Perhaps I may give an example. It is not immediately obvious, for example, that tinplate going to a canning factory may affect the supply of food that people will buy in shops. The tinplate becomes cans, and after the cans are filled with foodstuffs they go to the shops. However, when we have made the point clearly, we have found that our wish has been obeyed and that the supply of tinplate for tin cans for food has become considerably easier.

The right hon. Gentleman specifically said that the situation at Felixstowe had improved. I wonder whether he would be good enough to check up on my latest information that the port has been closed altogether.

Secondly, perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will also make some inquiries at Liverpool, where I understand that a rather odd statement by the chairman of the strike committee said last Friday that, so far as Liverpool was concerned, the code of practice existed only in the imagination of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and that for Liverpool it did not exist at all. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would at least give the strike committee at Liverpool the benefit of his advice to the contrary.

I do not want to go too deeply into the remarks that are made about advice given to the Leader of the Opposition. The advice that her food adviser gave her 10 days ago was that Britain would face real hunger by the end of last week. That really was not true. Perhaps the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition should get another adviser. I shall show the right hon. Gentleman the quotation later, if he wishes.

From Sir Hector Laing.

Of course, it would be totally wrong for Liverpool or Felixstowe to be closed down. I shall do my best to look into the question that the right hon. Gentleman has asked, because my information does not fully support what he says. As he rightly says, the information is patchy, so I shall look into the matter.

In the light of my right hon. Friend's statement, may I ask whether he agrees with me that the gross exaggeration by both the press and the broadcasting media during the past weeks, aided and abetted by the Conservative Party, has been absolutely criminal? Does he further agree with me that their panic-stricken demands for a state of emergency have been proved to be wrong and that the Government's attitude in not being panicked on this matter has been proved to be absolutely correct by the statement that he has made?

Perhaps I may say this to my hon. Friend, and I hope that he will not take it amiss. The duty of the press, television and radio is to report what is said to them. Therefore, I do not regard them as being those who are creating the panic. They are merely reporting the advice that some people in the trade have given them.

I have been asked whether I think that some of that advice was politically motivated.

I prefer to believe that the gentlemen in question do not have a political idea in their heads and that it was sheer timidity and incompetence that made them say such things.

Does the Minister realise that the House will not have been at all surprised to hear that there are plentiful supplies at the ports? It is a little difficult to shop around at the ports or to feed animals at the ports. Will he say, first, what effect this is having on the price of food in the shops? He will have noticed that the price of eggs has risen quite substantially. Will he make sure that it comes down if and when the dispute is over?

Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman look at the situation in the ports with regard to picketing in the ports on the south side of the Bristol Channel and the River Severn in particular, where picketing is still stopping essential foodstuffs from being moved out?

Do I detect that the hon. Gentleman is calling for price controls on foodstuffs? If so, I shall certainly pass that on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection.

As regards the ports, the hon. Gentleman will have noticed that I was talking primarily about adequate supplies to the shops. That is true. That is one reason why the public are remaining calm.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about stoppages at the docks where picketing is stopping items which ought to be coming in in accordance with the code of practice. That was why I promised the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) to look into these questions. Obviously, if they are covered by the code of practice, they should be allowed free rein.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to his contacts with various interested organisations. What contact has he maintained with organisations representing the low paid and the pensioners in our society? Does he agree that a direct result of panic buying has been to make these people more vulnerable since they do not have the resources to stock up on these goods? Even if the distribution of goods improves, what contingency plans have the Government to ensure a more equitable sale of these goods in the shops?

Secondly, the Minister referred to difficulties in the North-West and the North. Was he associating Scotland with those difficulties, because it has had this dispute for 12 days, longer than the rest of the country, and does he envisage a Scottish Office Minister making a statement to the House on the situation in Scotland?

Perhaps I may take the hon. Lady's last point first. She probably did not hear me, but I mentioned Scotland in the course of my statement or in my first answer. I am well aware of the difficulties in Scotland. This is a matter for my right hon. Friend, as she knows, but I shall certainly pass on that part of her remarks to him.

On the first point, there is at the moment more than enough food if the people of this country behave with their usual common sense. They have been doing so. Therefore, there is enough for old-age pensioners, mothers of large families and all the rest. The difficulty comes when panic-stricken, timid, alarmist statements are made. The press has its duty. It must report the statements which are made, and one tries to counter them with the truth. But if that kind of remark continues, difficulties will arise. I agree with the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mrs. Bain) that these are the priority people in our community and that they should be most protected.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's usual reasonableness. Does he agree that the staements made by Sir Hector Laing, the official adviser to the Leader of the Opposition, are probably more responsible than anything else for the stortages of some selected items?

Secondly, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the steps which he has taken, with success, to ensure adequate supplies of feedingstuffs to farm animals.

I thank my hon. Friend for his second remark. That was the first difficult problem of priority and it was the first one to be dealt with.

As to those who make alarmist statements, I do not think that the gentleman mentioned by my hon. Friend was the only one. Clearly it had an effect. Last Thursday there was about 50 per cent. more buying in the shops because of alarmist statements made by some gentlemen, which were, of course, reported. When people understood the situation, on Friday and on Saturday the amount of buying went down.

In view of what has been said about Sir Hector Laing, I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman two questions. First, is he aware that the Opposition have no official advisers on this matter? Secondly, I do not know what he does, but I have certainly asked for and listened to advice on the situation. What Sir Hector Laing has stressed to me personally on more than one occasion has been that the danger to food supplies will come when the pipeline has been emptied as a result of a prolonged stoppage, not now.

On 12 January—now 10 days ago—Sir Hector Laing said:

"Britain will face real hunger by the end of next week."
That is not true.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Sir Hector Laing also said that 70 per cent. of our food factories would be closed by the end of this week? Does he recognise that, despite what he said in answer to an earlier question, the BBC has some responsibility for ascertaining the truth of what it puts over? It simply is not good enough for it to put out stories which are spread by Tory propagandists.

To be fair, the BBC has also given me the opportunity to tell the country the truth.

Does the right hon. Gentleman, as Minister of Agriculture, realise the major concern of many farmers, particularly in the South-West, about the secondary picketing of animal feedingstuffs? What action is he taking, either personally or in conjunction with the Prime Minister, who was sitting with him on the Treasury Bench a few moments ago, about instances at Avon-mouth docks where independent drivers going to collect feedingstuffs have been all but forced to leave their cabs to go into a Seco hut to be seen by an interview committee, to be humiliated, to have their average daily wage demanded of them, to be told that they can go into the docks only by paying that amount of money and twice as much on behalf of their employers, who, after telephone conversations, agreed to their drivers paying this money, but objected to doing so? That is extortion, not a voluntary contribution, and something should be done about it.

If the hon. Gentleman or any other hon. Gentleman has any facts of instances which are clearly against the law of the land, will he ensure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is given the details? I do not mean at this moment. The hon. Gentleman asked other questions and it would be only courteous to him to answer his questions and only courteous to me if he would remain in his seat until I have answered them. If the hon. Gentleman or any other hon. Gentleman has details of actions which are against the law, the sooner we get the names and details and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has them, the better it will be. It is no use talking about them unless they can be produced.

The first point related to animal feedingstuffs. I was asked whether I had been in contact with the farmers. The answer is "Yes, daily". Indeed, when, if ever, I leave the House after the statement is concluded and questions have been answered, I shall be seeing the National Farmers' Union on the question of animal feedingstuffs.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, even if some pickets are not observing the code of conduct, any member of the union who crosses a picket line who is observing the code of conduct will be safe from any disciplinary action within the union, that if any disciplinary proceedings are brought against him the burden of proving that he had committed an offence will be on those laying the charge, and that, if any unconstitutional action is taken against him, there will be a remedy through the courts? If my right hon. Friend agrees, will he make a statement to that effect to encourage members of the union who wish to comply with the code of conduct to do so?

I have no doubt that my hon. Friend has well stated the law and that every chief constable in the country is well aware of it.

May I ask the Minister to comment on one subject which is all too familiar to him, namely, fish? Will he comment in particular on the situation in the South-West regarding the inshore trawlers from Brixham and elsewhere because the processing factory in Plymouth which makes animal feedingstuffs is closed, although no one involved has anything to do with the strike? The Avonmouth cold storage depot—I am not talking about the port—is also closed, although again no drivers are involved there. The local co-op always sends the fish to Avonmouth, yet it is not able to do so. Leaving Hull and Grimsby apart, where there are major problems regarding road hauliers, the local fishermen are having to dump fish back into the sea, which is a scandalous waste of food, or at best are having to get the French to come and collect the feedingstuffs and to take them to France. Meanwhile, the cold storage cannot be used and the processing factory cannot supply the animal feedingstuffs which the Minister said he was keen should be maintained. Will he look into and give specific answers to those matters?

I shall certainly look into them, and into any other case that can be put. As to the hon. Gentleman's general question, fish is coming in. I am glad to say that it is one of those articles of foodstuffs which is not in short supply, except for the normal reason which we all know about from the past.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in a recent "Jimmy Young Show" contact was made by managers of markets at Glasgow, Liverpool, London and Birmingham, the reports of which established plenty of available foodstuffs at prices lower than at this time last year?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that information. What with one thing and another, I have missed my "Jimmy Young Show" this week.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he is quite wrong about Hull? We have had our ups and downs there, but at the moment Hull is most definitely in a down. Only last Friday the strike committee openly and positively rejected the code of practice. I have been checking up on events over the weekend, and my findings prove that the confirmation of that rejection has gone into operation.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman's information is a little behind my own, but I shall certainly look into it.

Will my right hon. Friend accept the compliments of Labour Members for the balanced restraint of his statement? Does he agree that one major reason why adequate supplies of foods are in the shops is that the vast majority of people have refused to be stampeded by the words and behaviour of the party led by the Finchley hoarder?

A great deal of British common sense has come into this. I said that there had been moments when alarmists, from wherever they may come, have had their go. Frankly, I myself believe that a little courage and a little less timidity would not be a bad thing at the present time.

Will the Minister, on behalf of the Government, publicly state that in the Government's view it is quite wrong for little committees up and down the country to decide which goods can be moved in priority, particularly when the members of those committees are not elected? As it is quite obvious that there are militant aspects of the present hauliers' strike, will the right hon. Gentleman, on behalf of the Government and himself, use the special relationship the Government are supposed to have with the trade union movement and ask the trade union leadership to take some action against those militants who will not accept the advice and instructions of the national leaders of that particular union?

If the hon. Gentleman wishes it, I shall send him a copy of the code of practice which has been agreed to by the Transport and General Workers' Union. Perhaps he might also care to look at the tape this afternoon, because there is a Press Association release that he might find interesting. As to picketing, when Disraeli in 1875 introduced the law which allowed peaceful picketing, I take it that if the hon. Gentleman had been present at the time he would probably have approved it.

As a fellow member of the Transport and General Workers' Union, does my right hon. Friend agree that the directors of food manufacturing concerns, especially the one in my constituency—Quaker Oats—was greatly relieved after the issuing of the code of conduct? I was informed that there had been a considerable improvement in the situation and that in consequence the factory in my constituency would not now have to close. They were rather afraid of that. Does not he also agree that ever since they have taken the helm of events it has been the desire of the national leaders of the TGWU to contain this to a dispute within the road haulage industry?

I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said. I would add one thing. When they look at this perfectly calmly and logically, as I believe they are, away from all the panic which has been created, the people of this country will agree, as they did in the past, that voluntary co-operation between Government and union rather than confrontation is the only way to solve industrial disputes.

Order. Before I deal with the applications under Standing Order No. 9, I propose to call four more hon. Members who have been standing.

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that he has been inadequately briefed this afternoon? He has not answered the questions put to him by my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton), nor has he answered my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery). Surely the right hon. Gentleman should have a list of all the ports and depots with the exact position so that he can give the House the present position. Will he look again at the briefing which he has been given, and also at what is happening at Avon-mouth?

I tried to answer the 11 questions that were asked by the right hon. Gentleman, and I tried to answer the questions that were put by the hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery). The hon. Gentleman himself is usually rather fair. Therefore, on reflection, I think that he will be the first to agree that I have tried to answer those questions related to the docks—incidentally, they embrace matters that are well beyond my own remit—which were asked of me. Had the hon. Gentleman heard what I said, he would have understood that I was taking on board those questions about individual docks, which the right hon. Gentleman fairly asked me on matters which need to be more clearly identified. As I explained, the information I received, which may or may not be later than that of the right hon. Gentleman—it probably is—did not in some cases altogether accord with his.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, through no thanks to him or to any of his staff but thanks to the work of Mr. Parker of the NFU and Mr. Humphreys of the NUAW, who sometimes twice a day have been to see the strike committee of the TGWU at Liverpool docks, millions of poultry and tens of thousands of pigs have not yet died? The difficulty is that as soon as these men get one problem sorted out another arises. As soon as they get one set of dispensations going, no sooner have they got back to Preston than some other difficulty has arisen. I have telephoned the Minister's private number frequently, as well as the emergency committee. What will the right hon. Gentleman do when these dispensations break down and supplies from the Liverpool docks gradually dry up?

The hon. Lady has put her finger on the work which is being done locally. I agree about the NFU and the agriculture workers' union, but perhaps she will be a little more generous to the people in the retail food industry who have gone through a great deal of adaptation and resilience in order to see that her food as well as mine is properly looked after. I do not mind the hon. Lady saying that I have nothing to do with it—after all, we are all in politics—but she might at least be a little more gracious to the men and women in my Department who have been working day and night, since 8 a.m. on Monday a fortnight ago to ensure that everything goes as smoothly as possible. Perhaps she will go back to the NFU, because she will find that it agrees with me.

Are we to understand that whether or not the people in this country receive essential food depends not on the Government, the law passed by this House and its enforcement, but upon a voluntary code of conduct?

Whether the people in this country get essential food depends on many people, including those who produce the food. Of course, it is individuals who get the food moving, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I would not be much good at growing food myself. I have never tried to do it.

Are we to take it that salt is now moving from the Belfast docks to the Milk Marketing Board—salt being indispensable to the industry in the Province? When the Minister referred to improvement, do we take it from the absence of any Northern Ireland Minister that that improvement extends to Northern Ireland?

I believe that the improvement does extend to Northern Ireland. There are pockets of difficulty, but I think that one can say that the position in the Province is a good deal better. I take the hon. Member's point about salt. It is vital not only in the milk industry but in slaughterhouses, and in bread and a number of other commodities. I do not believe that there is any reason for alarm at present.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Before we move on to the next business, would it be possible for the Minister to make a statement about what he is doing to relieve the situation at Manchester and Salford docks, which have now been closed for 14 days? Food factories are now closing in Greater Manchester—

Order. There are many hon. Members who could rise on a point of order and put questions in a similar fashion.

On a new point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you know, I am not trying to get in on this at all. Therefore, perhaps it is relevant that I should ask you this question. The statement that we have heard affects every hon. Member in many respects. Therefore, I ask for your assistance. If there is an hon. Member still trying to get in, it would be very helpful if you could call him.

One of the difficulties concerning that is that we would never start on any other business, because every hon. Member would be entitled to ask questions.