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Queen's Recommendation having been signified--
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Employment Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any increase attributable to the Act in the sums so payable under any other Act.-- [Mr. Durant.]
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Welfare Food Amendment Regulations 1990 (S.I., 1990, No. 3), dated 3rd January 1990, a copy of which was laid before this House on 5th January, be annulled.
By these regulations the Government have achieved a rare feat. Few measures have aroused with equal passion the wrath of both the Child Poverty Action Group and the National Farmers Union. This is a mean malicious measure that has been universally condemned, and the whole milk business speaks on it with one voice--producers' milk producers, milk processors, creameries, milkmen, milkwomen and milk drinkers. I am sure that, if the cows themselves could join in, they would, bellowing a chorus of derision and denunciation.
More than 120 Members of the House signed an early-day motion, which condemned this inept and damaging decision to short-change the milk industry. It states :
"this House condemns the decision to reduce the redemption value of welfare milk tokens ; is convinced that this autocratic cut will put in jeopardy a beneficial nutritional service to handicapped children, vulnerable nursing and pregnant mothers and their children ; believes that it unfairly slashes the precarious income of milkmen and the milk industry."
The decision is based on the Government's failure to appreciate the value of the work of milkmen in collecting and redeeming the tokens.
My normal practice is magnanimously to refer at first to any beneficial effects of legislation, but this time that is not possible because the regulations are damaging in every syllable, and every assumption that they make is wrong. They are friendless regulations, which can be justified only if one believes that the only function of Government is to reduce public spending, regardless of the social havoc that will be caused.
To understand the thinking behind the regulations is not easy. I would ask my hon. Friends to try to perform the mental gymnastics necessary to get down to the primitive protozoan level of thinking at which the Government's corporate brain functions. It is not the brain of homo sapiens--of reasonable humankind ; it is the regressive, crude, tunnel-thinking brain of homo Thatcherus. So single-minded has the Government's pursuit of price- cutting and penny-pinching become that they now bargain and cheat with the guile of a stallholder in the souk in Baghdad and with the morality of an Arthur Daley. The Government have decided that there is virtue to be gained by getting good value for money. That is a laudable aim and one that we would all applaud. Big-spending Governments need to be circumspect, especially when they are buying Trident missiles, battle tanks, and jet aircraft. Of course these should come cheaper by the dozen. However, the crude assumption is that all bulk buying must be rewarded with a discount.
The Government certainly buy milk in bulk--£80 million worth. Therefore, they quite illogically deduce that there must be economies of scale. Of course, there would be economies if the milk was sold in bulk by tankers going round to the delivery points. However, that is meaningless in this case because welfare milk is delivered in pints very expensively and slowly on individual doorsteps. Not one drop of it is bulk delivered. There are no economies of scale and no price advantages from bulk purchase.
Column 114The regulations will cause a serious financial loss. The Associated Co-operative Creameries knows of some milkmen who deliver 200 welfare pints of milk a week. Under the regulations, that would represent a loss of £42 a week, or £2,184 a year. That could be a mortal blow for a small business.
The Department of Social Security and the Department of Health claim that they are being scrupulously fair and claim that the grief of the cut in milkmen's incomes could be shared with other sectors of the industry through a process of horse trading. In that case, the milkmen would be negotiating from a position of weakness. The Government will save the not inconsiderable sum of £10 million, but that is a small sum in terms of DSS and Department of Health spending. At whose expense will that saving occur? The milkmen will suffer directly this week, out of their own pockets.
A milkman from the Gaer in my constituency has written to me asking,
"Why should I foot the bill for a welfare benefit? Why should I take a cut in my income in order to provide a service that the Government should provide? This is on top of the taxes that I pay already. What will happen next? Will the Government ask bus drivers to chip in to pay for free trips for pensioners? Will they ask nurses for a whip round to pay for operations?"
The NFU, a friend of the Conservative party, states :
"This is an unjustifiable attempt to force the dairy industry to pay for a national welfare scheme that is primarily in the interests of the nation."
The milk industry suffers from low profit margins. If it cannot absorb the cuts, the loss must be repaid by the customers and the price of milk will rise. That is a familiar story of the Government cutting their costs by shifting the burden on to the milk buyers--the taxpayers.
All hon. Members will be aware that it is impossible these days to have a conversation with small business people without their bringing up their great anxiety that their businesses will no longer shortly be viable because of high interest rates and inflation. Last year there was a record number of small business failures. For many milkmen, this theft of a small part of their legitimate income may be the final straw that wrecks their business.
One of the Government's false claims that has greatly angered the trade is that they have negotiated with the industry on this matter. Negotiation is understood to be a process of bargaining and give and take at the end of which a consensus and agreement is struck. That is not what has happened in this case. The Government have obviously been reading the book entitled, "How to Strike a Bargain" by the late unlamented Nicolae Ceausescu. It is not a consensus so much as a Caeusensus. It is an autocratic act.
The managing director of Associated Dairies in Leeds confirms that there was no agreement. He wrote angrily :
"As recently as January 10th representatives of the dairy trade met with the Minister reponsible to advise her that the changes had been constructed on false assumptions. They were met with a simple refusal to reconsider the decision."
"Change has been imposed", state the master dairymen of London. The Dairy Trade Federation, which represents all first-hand buyers of milk from the Milk Marketing Board, has refuted the claim that amendments came about through negotiations with the dairy industry. It insists that it consistently opposed any proposals regarding the discounts scheme. The Associated Co-operative
Column 115Creameries in Tyne and Wear state that there has been no agreement and states that the proposed changes are an imposition, not a negotiation.
What will be the outcome of these damaging regulations? Some milkmen with a small number of welfare milk beneficiaries will abandon those deliveries as the continuing hassle of collecting the small number of milk tokens will not be worth their while because of diminishing returns. It is clear that the Government have foreseen that as regulation 9(1) will allow beneficiaries who cannot exchange their tokens for milk to redeem them for cash. That is proof that the Government have anticipated the actions of many milkmen.
The Government's action is also sinister as it may be the start of a process to undermine the welfare scheme. The purpose of that scheme is to provide fine, nutritious food for those in greatest need. I believe that the Government may come back at a later stage to say that the scheme is not working.
Other milkmen will have no choice but to continue with the scheme. I am told that in some areas it is not uncommon for welfare milk to account for between 25 and 50 per cent. of the total round. Such milkmen are in deep trouble as they will be unable to recover the cost from their claimant customers, or abandon that business without inviting swift bankruptcy. Inevitably they will be faced with a crippling new financial loss.
Governments of all colours have long recognised that whole or homogenised milk should be a staple item in the diet of the under-fives and other vulnerable groups. There is a social obligation to ensure that such valuable food reaches pregnant mothers, nursing mothers, children in families whose income is uncertain and families where access to shops is restricted because the lone parent, usually the mother, is encumbered by pushchairs, shopping baskets or her pregnancy. Often such mothers are virtually imprisoned in their homes because of the demands of their young families. The daily delivery of a heavy, essential item of food is a godsend. Now it will be put at grave risk.
The regulations also pose a threat to the daily pinta. The dairy industry has already made a strong case against milkmen being short changed. It believes that milkmen should receive extra money for handling the tokens, especially as it involves a great deal of extra work. The milkman must collect the tokens, collate them, parcel them up and send them off. If there is any loss the milkman must make up the difference. Once the tokens have been despatched, he must wait at least a fortnight to be repaid, and often that results in a cash flow problem. The process is lengthy and cumbersome. The NFU has confirmed that the new procedural arrangements set out in the regulations and the extra records required by the Department will increase the administrative burden at all stages of the process.
Milkmen provide a splendid service by delivering the daily pinta--a service unique to Britain.
Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly) : Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government stand to save about £7.5 million as a result of the regulations? My hon. Friend has given a comprehensive list of our reasons for opposing the new scheme as well as a full list of the organisations and individuals opposed to it. Why are the Government
Column 116seeking to introduce such a maladroit and vindictive scheme, which will save them a mere £7.5 million? In terms of the Department's total budget, that sum is infinitesimal. Given that my hon. Friend is trying to interpret the Minister's mind, what reasons does he believe lie behind the Government's decision?
Mr. Flynn : It is not for me to delve into an area of psychology that has always been beyond me. I do not pretend to understand the mind of the homo Thatcherus. The Government have tunnel vision, which dictates that they must save money. They believe that that principle, having worked in some areas, must work in all. That is why they have fallen into the trap of believing that, if there is bulk purchase, they must receive a discount. That policy may work in the corner shop, but it should not be adopted by a Government who should have other responsibilities other than merely reducing public spending. The Government have blundered on this because their thinking is fixed on tramlines and they cannot get off them. Certainly there are many contracts in which money can be saved.
All Governments have a duty to ensure that they get the best bargain and the best arrangement, but that is totally unjustified in a case such as this, where the casualties will be vulnerable people. In my experience, reaction to the provisions has been universally hostile. I do not know anyone, other than Government spokesmen, who have seen this as anything other than a calamity.
We must consider the service provided to us by the milkmen. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) that the total amount that has been spent on milk is £80 million and that the saving will be at least £8 million, but it could be as much as £10 million. Milkmen provide us with a marvellous service and are popular people in our society. They turn up in the most miserable weather, and at the most bleakly unsocial hours to deliver a heavy, awkward, essential food to our doorsteps.
The daily pinta is already enjoying a fragile survival, trading on the good will of the milkmen who toil for poor financial rewards. Why do an ungrateful Government insult them and the value of their work by imposing this penny-pinching cut on their small earnings? Welfare milk tokens are lifesavers. They form a good-value scheme that provides a fine daily nutritional base for 500,000 families in greatest need. The Government are short-changing the milkmen. They are putting the pinta at risk and are sabotaging a welfare provision that has beneficially nurtured two generations. The regulations are miserly, inhuman and unjust.
Mr. Donald Thompson (Calder Valley) : This is a niggardly little piece of legislation. I shall not repeat all that the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) said, but my hon. Friend the Minister has obviously been misled by inadequate, half-baked consultants and has been badly advised by whoever advises him on this matter. I can see the reasons for saying that there is a huge purchase of this milk and for the Government therefore thinking that there should be some discount, but to do it in this way is short-sighted. The Secretary of State will gain another "milk-snatcher" title if he proceeds with the regulations.
Column 117How can we talk about "remote areas" in the press release, but not understand that to be at the top of a high-rise block of flats, with a couple of kids and a husband who is out at work all day, is to be in a "remote area"? How can we say, "You can exchange these tokens for cash", because that is what will happen? People will trade in the milk tokens and buy and sell them. The supermarket will take, say, 15 box tops and six milk tokens and knock the value of them off the bill. The cashier will say, "Thank you, Mrs. Smith, that's £35.72 less £7.80, including the milk tokens", but there might not be any milk in the basket. The Government and my hon. Friend do not care about that ; nobody cares except the milk industry. Under this system, we will drive people to swapping milk tokens for cash. We may as well have food stamps that can be sold for cash.
The whole crux of this badly advised, badly constructed, half-baked, consultants' dream is regulation 5. How can we say that people can sell milk for any price that they like, but that a chap cannot charge for going to the top of a block of high-rise flats? How can we say that a milkman cannot say to Mrs. Jones, "I've got to charge you 3p for this", when she may say that she does not want to pay 21p or 42p per week, or whatever it is, and that she will go down to the supermarket instead?
How can our party stop a deal like that? We are in business to do a deal. What if someone says, "I'm not going to pay you 3p for your milk"? It is true that the milkman will be able to charge a general charge of, say, 3p to everybody, but he will be able to say, "You lot don't pay--I'll only charge this lady with the milk."
Are we to have another 50,000, 5,000 or even five civil servants conducting sweeps to determine whether people are charging 3p or 2p to deliver a bottle of milk? We are supposed to be getting rid of that sort of practice.
I know no one in favour of these regulations. I also know no one who does not believe that a small charge for delivery would be reasonable. Regulations 5 and 7 could be amended or deleted to make the regulations more palatable, at the very least.
Some months ago my hon. Friend the Minister and I were wise enough to weigh public opinion on green top milk. We did not receive much help from the Opposition, I may say. Anyway, my hon. Friend and I listened to what the consumer had to say, and we withdrew our regulations on green top milk because we had listened to public opinion. I advise my hon. Friend to do the same tonight.
Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South) : I shall not detain the House long. The hon. Member for Calder Valley (Mr. Thompson) comes from the part of the West Riding in which there are many small dairies and he understands the issue well. He has made many good points, adding to those made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn).
I agree that the regulations should be withdrawn. For the greater part of my time of nearly 30 years in the House I have represented an inner city. Many people in it need welfare milk. This marks the beginning of finding an end to the scheme, which has been with us for 40 years. As a result of a redistribution of boundaries, my constituency now contains many small dairies on the borders of the constituencies of the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) and of my hon. Friend the Member for
Column 118Bradford, West (Mr. Madden). I imagine that we have received similar letters. I want to raise one or two points from letters that I have received from some of the larger dairies.
Associated Dairies, whose head office is in Kirkstall road, Leeds, has written to me to say that towards the end of last year a Minister
"assured the House of Lords that There will be provision to enable this reduction to be shared between all sectors of the trade on a voluntary basis '."
That has not been done ; there is no such scheme. The letter went on :
"It is now clear that the Department of Health has made no provision for this sharing"
I hope that the Minister will explain that--
"apart from a suggestion to welfare milk suppliers that the cost of the reduction which the Government have imposed, should be shared equally by the milk producer, the milk processor and the milk distributor. Indeed, I believe that the DOH/DSS officials acknowledge that they laid the Statutory Instrument before Parliament after having received advice from officials at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that it would not be possible under the Milk Marketing Scheme, for the Milk Marketing Board to contribute on behalf of its producers."
What is the point of making a suggestion if it cannot then be implemented? The letter effectively alleges that the Minister misled the other place. That only fuels concern about what has been done to the welfare milk scheme
Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton) : Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves the point about sharing, has he managed to perceive--I have not--how a producer-retailer can share the cost with anybody when he has no one with whom to share it?
The other letter came from the managing director, Mr. Blackburn, of a dairy at Wakefield which no doubt serves Batley and perhaps Bradford. He said that even in high-density welfare milk areas, which affect a relatively small number of rounds, the dairy men will be adversely affected. He raised the same point differently. He said : "Admittedly, the proposal allows the constituent parts of the industry, including the Milk Marketing Board, to negotiate a sharing of the grief. Such a negotiation would appear to us to be of the type generally frowned upon by the OFT."
It has been alleged that the other place was misled and that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food could not substantiate the claim made by the Department. Now it appears that the Office of Fair Trading would be against the Government's sharing plans. I leave my case there.
We all know the problems that the dairy industry will face, particularly the small dairy men in the West Riding. The best thing that the Government can do is to withdraw the regulations. The former Minister, the hon. Member for Calder Valley, recalled, "Thatcher, Thatcher, Milk Snatcher". Is that the Government's theme : that money can be saved on welfare milk? The scheme is misconceived and bad. All Members who feel strongly about it will vote against the Government. 10.41 pm
Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton) : One puzzle about the scheme is why it has anything to do with the Department of Health. When the Department of Health and Social Security was dismantled I would have expected
Column 119the scheme to come under the Department of Social Security, because it exists to cater for deprived people for whose benefit the original scheme was proposed. This is not primarily for the Department of Health. My hon. Friend the Minister needs to explain why he is sitting on the Front Bench dealing with this matter, instead of a Minister from the Department of Social Security. Clearly, this is in the nature of a welfare benefit.
That cat is well and truly out of the bag when people can cash the tokens in a social security office, not for milk, but for money, almost all of which in many cases will have gone to the bus company which brought them there, especially if they come from rural areas.
Villages do not have social security offices, nor do many towns. It may not have occurred to officials in London that some parts of Britain do not have social security offices. That is the reality in vast areas of Britain, particularly where there are
producer-retailers. They are not to be found in the centres of London, Birmingham and Manchester. They are, by definition, in rural areas. This is one of the most ill-conceived schemes that I have seen. The sum of money, even gross, is negligible, let alone when net of the considerable administrative costs. It serves no obvious purpose that the benefit should be taken away. Wise Ministers withdraw ill-conceived statutory instruments when defects are pointed out. That is the fate which should overtake this one tonight.
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye) : The broad issues of concern about and the objections to the scheme have been expressed to good effect by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I shall be brief and raise a specific regional point about the impact of the scheme. I hope that the Minister will pay attention and respond to my point at the end of the debate. One of my constituents, Mr. Robert Hosford, who is a retailer running a small village shop on the Isle of Skye, has written to me about the dreadful impact that the revised scheme will have on him. Apart from the additional weighting that has been given to London, the scheme does not adequately take account of the different purchasing costs of milk in different parts of the country. The Minister must appreciate that, for transport and other reasons, the costs and overheads in an area such as the Highlands and Islands are that much greater.
If the scheme goes ahead, the token replacement value will be reduced to 27p per pint. The milk purchased wholesale by my constituent from the local milk board in Dingwall--which is a fair haul from Dunregan--costs 29p per pint. Therefore, small retailers such as my constituent will have to subsidise the Government to the tune of 2p per pint without any profit being made. That is hopelessly unrealistic and quite unworkable. My constituent wrote :
"We were under the impression that these tokens were given to people who were receiving some sort of subsidy, ie either Social Security or Unemployment Benefit to supplement their low incomes. Although the Milk Marketing
Column 120Board are obliged to take the tokens, it has been left to the retailer's discretion whether he accepts them or not. We now find that if we do accept the tokens and do not supply 7 pints of milk, at a loss to ourselves, we are liable for a fine of £400."
That is a pathetic position in which to place the small retailer. It is typical of what will happen in rural areas. The effect on the Orkneys, the Shetlands and the Western Isles will be even greater because they will have far greater overheads. No proper attention has been given to that matter.
The alternatives that have been suggested by Ministers, for example, that the consumer could use a large store or supermarket, are quite unrealistic. For those living in Dunregan there is no point in looking for a supermarket, as that involves a round trip of 46 miles--quite a journey, and petrol costs would wipe out any benefits. Officials appear to have been wholly unaware of the diversity in the price of milk throughout the country. It would be wise to withdraw the scheme and think again. It is causing great social concern and direct practical economic concern both to those who are due to be the recipients of the scheme and to those small retailers in rural areas who have to administer it. I hope that the Government will have the good sense to take a step back from what is a quite unnecessary and avoidable brink.
Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock (Batley and Spen) : I regret to inform my hon. Friend the Minister that I cannot support the regulations. They are ill-thought-out, damaging, and against the best interests of all concerned, especially those in most need of the benefit. It is a serious disadvantage to many milkmen--who are small business men, the very people whom we supposedly support.
What is even more serious is that it is a long-term threat to the delivery of the doorstep pinta--the retention of which I have campaigned for over many years. The elderly, the disabled and those with small children living at the top of blocks of flats cannot walk to the supermarket or the corner shop to buy their milk. They are the very people whose nourishment we want to encourage. I agree, of course, that the Government should get the best value for money. Obviously, with bulk purchases they should receive a discount. But bulk purchases should mean bulk delivery as well. I expect the Government to look for good value in all its contracts. As I come from Yorkshire, no one would expect anything else from me. But I do not know any housewife who has a tankerload of milk delivered very often. To me, that-- not a pint bottle--is bulk.
Obviously the Government want to spend very wisely the £80 million that is involved. We have a responsibility to the taxpayer to make sure that it is spent wisely. But I am afraid that this is not a means of saving money. The 3p discount that the Government propose is nonsense. As we have all been told, there is no agreement with producers and suppliers. Discussions have taken place, but they have been one-sided. Therefore, either the milkmen or the dairy companies will have to stand the discount. Large welfare milk rounds in inner city areas will suffer huge losses-- £50 to £60 a week, it has been prophesied. The milkmen who came to my surgery on Saturday say that even in good areas they will lose £10 to £20 a week. It is outrageous to expect small business men to subsidise any Government scheme by such an amount.
As the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) said, Baroness Hooper, in answer to a
Column 121parliamentary question in another place on 20 December, said that there would be provision. Where is that provision? At the moment it is not obvious to any of us. It has been suggested that Baroness Hooper misled the House in saying that there would be provision. No one can find it.
Will welfare milk deliveries come to an end? The milkmen are saying that if they do not get a proper price they will have to think very carefully about whether to accept tokens. There is no onus on the retailers to take tokens. If they decide not to take them the whole scheme will be in danger. The idea that tokens could be exchanged for cash is outrageous. What guarantee is there that the money would not be spent on cigarettes or gin? That is not the purpose of subsidising a milk scheme. It is essential that the people in question get nourishing milk, and not other things. The exchange of tokens for cash is not something which the Government or the industry could police ; the people receiving the cash could spend it as they pleased.
We are led to believe that this matter was investigated by a consultant. I suggest that a consultant, once he has collected his fee and gone on to his next job, has no responsibility. Perhaps this consultant based his report on what may happen in areas of central London. But central London is quite different from the rest of the country. Milk is usually delivered direct in London by dairy companies. Those companies may be able to make special provision. Certainly in my part of the country the situation is quite different. There, milk is usually delivered by small business men--either people who run their own businesses or people with franchises from dairy companies. The loss to such people would be great.
I am all for Governments spending taxpayers' money wisely and carefully, but this exercise will save only a very small amount and will cause a major upheaval in the very important service of the delivery of milk to our doorsteps. That is my main concern. I suggest that the Government look again at this matter--and do so urgently. Certainly I shall not support the regulations.
Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby) : It is rather interesting that, so far, not a single hon. Member on either side of the House has been willing to say one word in favour of this measure, and I suggest that it is very unlikely that in the next half hour any hon. Member, except the Minister himself, will defend this decision by the Government. It is absolutely astounding.
In all the literature and statements that they have put out, the Government have talked about negotiation. Negotiation implies agreement at the end of the day. One negotiates in order to reach agreement. But there has been no agreement with the milk processors or with the dairymen, and any suggestion that there has been is completely refuted by a document issued by the Dairy Trade Federation. The federation ends by saying :
"Finally the Dairy Trade Federation would like to refute the statement, promoted by the DSS, that amendments to the scheme came about through negotiations with the dairy industry. The DTF has consistently opposed any proposals regarding the introduction of a discount system."
Many of the people working in the dairy industry are small business men. The Government tell us--though I never believe them--that they are firmly on the side of the small business man. I have always argued that they are on
Column 122the side of the small business man's biggest enemy--big business. In my view, it is big business that the Government try to protect. In many areas, franchises are more and more the accepted way of retailing milk. The people who run franchises have to take out a second mortgage, repay bank loans at high interest rates, rent vans, and pay for relief roundsmen when they fall ill or take a holiday. They should be given proper consideration by any Government, let alone the present one.
A probable consequence of the regulation is that some of those people will go out of business, and that will affect many households. An estimated 650,000 households currently receive tokens, accounting for 800,000 children, so the best part of 1 million children will be affected by the change. The Government may argue that they are not ending the scheme, only changing the way it operates, and that existing beneficiaries will continue to benefit. But will they? One of the regulation's consequences is that many dairies and roundsmen will, to save costs, be forced to cut their services. One franchise on Merseyside is talking of reducing its labour force by 25 per cent., causing more jobless in an area of existing high unemployment. The Co-operative movement in Skelmersdale may also be forced to make redundancies and to review its delivery services if the scheme goes through. The question of the additional costs burden also arises.
In some cases, as much as 40 per cent. of weekly takings will be affected by the Government's proposals. Even those firms that do not go out of business will suffer heavy losses. Those worst affected on Merseyside will include a Bootle franchise that currently takes 260 tokens valued at £546, so that that small firm will lose £54.60 per week. A franchise in Huyton collecting 250 tokens valued at £525 will lose £52.50 weekly. Another in Toxteth, a poor area of Liverpool, takes 180 tokens valued at £378 per week, so it will lose £37.80. There can be no argument but that that loss will be shared by the Government, and the Milk Marketing Board has already stated that it does not wish to deviate from the selling price agreed with the federation. Perhaps the Minister has some influence with the Milk Marketing Board, but it appears that the full burden of the change will fall initially on the back of the retail milk trade. Ultimately, those of our constituents living in poorer areas will suffer, because many milk delivery services will end. It may be said that they can make their way to the supermarket, but many are old and disabled. Moreover, that would leave the scheme increasingly open to abuse. Milk, like bread, is used by supermarkets as a loss leader for other products, and there is nothing to stop them from using milk tokens for other supplies : indeed, that is probably happening already. The only way in which we can be certain that value for money is being obtained--that the tokens are being used for their intended purpose--is to ensure the continuation of a viable retail dairy facility.
There is a further social aspect to doorstep deliveries. For many old or disabled people, they provide a point of contact with the outside world. I am aware that milkmen are not there to act as social workers, but I know of at least one case--and there have probably been many others--of an old or disabled person being found very ill. No one has visited for days and days ; it is the milk roundsman who finds that Mrs. Jones is unwell. It is not, of course, the
Column 123Minister's responsibility to provide that social service, but it is there none the less, and many people will miss the contact that it provides.
People who do not receive milk tokens will suffer as well. For one thing, the loss of a delivery service in a particular area will hit the general customer as well as the milk token customer : indeed, in some cases it will be the general customer who bears the cost. In many impoverished areas poor Peter will be paying poor Paul, subsidising a scheme that should properly be paid for by the Government.
This is a penny-pinching regulation. When the Government talk of achieving better value for money, what do they mean? Do they mean better value for the customer? Certainly that cannot be so. Do they mean better value for the milk roundsman? That cannot be so either. Do they, perhaps, mean better value for the Government? I suggest that the real reason for the debate is that the Department--like all Government Departments--has been faced with a diktat from the Prime Minister. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has said, "Here is the public expenditure survey : look at the high interest rates and the balance of payments, and tell me whether we can afford tax cuts this year. You had better do your share and come up with an idea that might save a little money here and there."
I do not think that £8 million is worth it, and I think that the general public--the electorate in all our constituencies--will be up in arms as the regulation starts to take effect, as it apparently did yesterday. There is time for the Government to reconsider, though, and I hope that what has been said by hon. Members on both sides of the House will show the Minister that he must do so. If he has not the authority to deal with the matter tonight, I suggest that he promise a review of the scheme's impact in three to six months' time, and undertake to enter into proper negotiations that will produce an agreement with the trade unions and other interested parties. 11.3 pm
Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood) : It appears that the result of tonight's debate is a foregone conclusion, as the regulations that we are discussing were introduced on Sunday 28 January. That opinion is shared by my milk-delivery constituents, who wrote to me on 26 October 1989 opposing the proposals. When I wrote on their behalf to the Department of Social Security asking for clarification, my letter was forwarded to the Department of Health, as that Department was now responsible ; only today did I receive a reply. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will agree that a wait of three months is unacceptable.