Dáil Éireann - Volume 104 - 25 February, 1947
In Committee on Finance. - Adjournment Debate—Reduction of Butter Ration.
Dr. O'Higgins Dr. O'Higgins
Dr. O'Higgins: I gave notice to raise the matter of the cut in the butter ration on the adjournment this evening. Three or four days ago a staggering blow was dealt at the people that nobody expected and that nobody had any reason to expect. The announcement was made, not through the Dáil, not after discussion, not associated with any adequate or acceptable explanation, that the butter ration was to be cut to two ounces per head per week. That fact in itself shows either a gross error in calculation in regard to stocks or a very big miscalculation with regard to consumption. In view of the fact that four weeks ago people were on a six-ounce ration, if the stocks were so low and the production so low, that four weeks later we were to be cut to a two-ounce ration, then we should have been on a four or five-ounce ration all the time in order to avoid this particularly scanty ration. Approximately three weeks ago we were put on a four-ounce ration. From that it is to be presumed that the calculation of the Department was that we had sufficient butter to maintain the four-ounce ration until the period of higher production. Three or four days ago we were reduced to a two-ounce ration. It is very easy for anyone to be wise after the event, but there is a certain lesson to be learned from the bungling associated with butter. You cannot destroy one year of the population of any species, animal or otherwise, and not pay for it subsequently. Years ago we were as busy as we could be in this country slaughtering calves, male and female, bull and heifer.
Minister for Agriculture (Mr. Smith) Patrick Smith
Minister for Agriculture (Mr. Smith): We do it yet.
Dr. O'Higgins Dr. O'Higgins
Dr. O'Higgins: I do not know the interrupter's policy, but I hope it will be an improvement on that of his predecessor.
General Mulcahy General Mulcahy
General Mulcahy: He says they are at it yet.
Dr. O'Higgins Dr. O'Higgins
Dr. O'Higgins: I will not judge him by his interruptions; I am too charitable.  We slaughtered a whole generation of cattle. Then the economic war ceased and we adopted the policy of selling cows and heifers as rapidly as we could for the best price we could get without reck or thought of the future. Deputies in different parts of this House were warning the then Minister for Agriculture that the rapid export of young cows and heifers would seriously hit the cattle industry generally and the milk and butter industry in particular. Other Deputies were warning the Minister that the population of dairy cattle was falling, and falling steeply. Blandly the Minister replied that our cattle population was remaining constant, that our milk and butter production was remaining level. If that is so, our ration should have remained level. It is clear from the drastic cut that serious miscalculations were made.
Although we are discussing milk, I do not see any point in crying over spilt milk. I am really raising this matter to see if we can prevent further harm being done. I think half a million cwts. of butter per annum would be sufficient to keep our people all the year round on the six-ounce ration. Our consumption was slightly higher than that, but our consumption was very much increased by tourists and visitors. I am not opposed to tourists; I am not opposed to tourism; I think it is a big source of revenue and an easy type of money coming in. But there is a time and place for everything. If our stocks are running out practically to starvation point; if in an agricultural country such as this with a tiny population—I think it is the lowest populated country for density per mile in the whole of Europe—we cannot produce enough butter and milk for ourselves, then we are complete and absolute failures to control and direct matters. With a population of less than three millions in an agricultural country, we cannot feed ourselves even with agricultural products. In that situation, to embark on a State policy, subsidised by the taxpayer, of attracting hundreds of thousands more people into the country to consume the little that is there appears to be unwise and untimely.
 I saw references in one of the papers to the effect that it was estimated that we would have 160,000 tourists in the present year. Presumably, that is based on advanced bookings. If there is anything nearly correct about that particular figure it would mean that, including trippers, we are going to have 250,000. Our own people are reduced to a two-ounce ration. Either the policy of attracting tourists at the present moment under existing circumstances is an unsound policy, unfair to our own people, or there is a reserve store denied to our own people which is put aside for visitors and trippers into the country. But the difference between figures of production given to us by the Government Front Bench and consumption on a basis of a ration period is such as would indicate that there is a very vast unexplained wastage or disappearance of butter. Is that Border smuggling or is it purchases by trippers, by visitors, not for consumption on the spot, because that is presumably covered by the catering allowances, but for transport out of the country? Apparently, according to the figures, which are rather unreliable, there is a big quantity of butter unaccounted for. There may be an explanation to be given for the many tons of missing butter but that explanation should be given before our own people are reduced to a two-ounce ration. I would suggest that we have to reconsider the advisability of attracting tourists in a big noisy spectacular way when our own larder is so very restricted. Secondly, if the whole population of this country, city, urban and rural, is to be put on a two-ounce ration of butter then the Department should consider the advisability of not giving a butter ration to people who have large tracts of land. If the person in a tenement house in the Coombe or in any back lane in an urban area in a town or a city can only get two ounces of butter, when they have not enough land to sod a lark, certainly the family living on 200 or 300 acres of land should at least produce sufficient butter for their own household. Some valuation line should be taken and people with a land valuation over that particular figure should not get the butter ration as long as we  are on a two-ounce ration and we should see to what extent that would lead to an increased ration for poorer city, urban and town dwellers.
I raised this particular matter to-night, not knowing that it was going to be such a bad night, but because I am mystified and as a Deputy of Dáil Eireann, when I have been asked in the last few days about it, I could give no explanation, justification or defence. I want to give the Minister an opportunity to make a statement to the Dáil which will inform Deputies and, through the Dáil and through the Press, inform the country why it was that we considered that we had sufficient stocks a few weeks ago for a four-ounce ration, a couple of months ago for a six-ounce ration and now we find we have only sufficient for a two-ounce ration and, if that is the serious position we find ourselves in, whether it is good policy to be inviting to our shores anything up to 250,000 visitors who are going to eat as much butter as they can and who will buy for taking away as much more as they can, and further, if it would not be advisable to consider a different ration for a person with a large holding of land as against, at least, the poorer folk that have no land.
Minister for Industry and Commerce (Mr. Lemass) Seán F. Lemass
Minister for Industry and Commerce (Mr. Lemass): I am glad Deputy O'Higgins raised this matter because it is quite obvious from statements that have appeared in the Press that many causes of misunderstanding exist. It is quite clear, for example, from Deputy O'Higgins's statement that he has been misled by the false information disseminated by newspapers and I refer particularly to the Irish Independent which has published a couple of leading articles on butter, full of false figures and erroneous deductions. It is desirable that any misapprehension should be removed as quickly as possible.
First, let it be quite clearly understood that no part of the 1946 butter production was exported, either commercially or in connection with the European relief scheme. There were no butter exports at all except such  quantities as may have been shipped as ships' stores or in some similar manner. The export of butter is prohibited. I know that attempts are made by people to smuggle small quantities on the occasion of personal visits here and that they are sometimes facilitated by traders here. I know that by reason of the fact that I have withdrawn a number of trading licences from shops, particularly in Border towns, but the total quantity that may have been lost to the country by reason of these smuggling activities was so small as to have no practical significance in relation to the butter ration.
Secondly, no part of our butter difficulties is due to the tourist trade. The allowance of creamery butter to persons in catering businesses is fixed and is not varied because of any increase in their business. The amount of butter which an hotel keeper or a restaurant proprietor is allowed to obtain has no relation whatever to the amount of business he can do, and any increase in that business by reason of tourist traffic or otherwise does not mean an increase in his allowance. It cannot be said, therefore, that the tourist business has resulted in an increased consumption of creamery butter in hotels or restaurants. I am referring now to creamery butter. Deputies should know that farmers' butter is not rationed. Farmers' butter is sold subject to certain restrictions and to the maximum price in operation, but it is not rationed.
One matter which has perturbed the leader writers of the Irish Independent turns upon that fact. They have commented upon the announced fact that the consumption of creamery butter increased this year. They purported to find some sinister significance in that fact. Any person of average intelligence would have drawn the obvious conclusion at once. A large number of people in this country in normal times made their own butter or purchased farmers' butter and did not buy creamery butter at all. Because of the adverse conditions last year, the production of farmers' butter went down and a number of people, for the first time, exercised their right to  draw a ration of creamery butter. That explains the increase in the consumption of creamery butter.
The total supply of creamery butter this year was 60,000 cwts. less than last year; that is, the estimated production this year as compared with the actual production of last year will be 60,000 cwts. less. The slaughter of calves in 1933 had no more to do with it than the war in China. In fact, 1936 was the year in which we had our maximum production of creamery butter. Every year since then the production of creamery butter has fallen. I am not going to discuss now the causes of that development or the remedy for it. That is a matter upon which there is room for difference of opinion. In any case, it is one to be discussed by experts, and I do not claim to be an expert. My function in relation to butter is to distribute fairly whatever supplies are available.
As I have said, this year we will have 60,000 cwts. less than last year. I know that in this year, compared with the previous year, the decline in the output of butter has to be attributed mainly to the bad weather, to the spring drought and to the autumn rains, together with the scarcity of feeding stuffs due to the bad harvest. We knew early last year that the reduced production of butter would necessitate a reduction in the ration at some period before May next. In fact, it became obvious about August or September that a reduction of the ration for some weeks in the winter would be necessary. Because we anticipated that reduction in the butter supply and the necessity to reduce the ration, we suspended the production of margarine and accumulated the stocks of the materials required in the manufacture of margarine to ensure that, if the butter ration had to be reduced, a compensating margarine ration could be given.
Let me say this about margarine. The margarine now on sale may not be as palatable as butter, but it has a high value as a food and Deputy O'Higgins was not quite fair in omitting all reference to it. The stock of  butter at the end of November was 191,195 cwts. At the end of November we proceeded on the assumption that production in the first quarter of 1947 would not be less than production in the same period of 1946. On the basis of that assumption, we considered it was possible to maintain a six-ounce ration to the 1st February and a four-ounce ration from 1st February to the beginning of May. However, the production during this first quarter of the year will be approximately 25,000 cwts. less than in the corresponding quarter of last year.
It became obvious early in January that the actual production in December was substantially below the production of December last year, but even at that stage it was considered it would still be possible to maintain the four-ounce ration from February to May, although the margin of safety had been substantially reduced. When the January production figures became available in mid-February, and it was clear from weather conditions that a further fall in February was to be anticipated, there was no alternative to cutting the ration. What the actual production figures for February will prove to be, I do not know, but nobody watching the weather will have any doubt that they will be substantially below the figures for the same month of last year.
We can only distribute whatever butter is available. That quantity will not permit of more than a two-ounce ration perhaps to the end of April but, if weather conditions improve, to a date some time in mid-April. Last year the production in the month of April was approximately 30,000 cwts. and, if production next April is as high, then there is a prospect of restoring the four-ounce ration earlier than the 1st May and it should certainly be possible to restore the six-ounce ration in May.
Coinciding with the reduction of the butter ration from four ounces to two ounces, the margarine ration was increased from two ounces to four ounces. The maintenance of the margarine ration at the four-ounce level assumes the safe arrival of materials for its manufacture which have been purchased and which are now in transit.
General Mulcahy General Mulcahy
 General Mulcahy: Has the production of margarine increased or is this in stock?
Mr. Lemass Mr. Lemass
Mr. Lemass: The production has been increased to maintain the higher ration. The only criticism that could be offered to my Department in relation to the butter ration is that we should have reduced the ration earlier. Having regard to the facts as we now know them, it might be contended that we should have cut the ration from 6 ozs. to 4 ozs. earlier, or have instituted a lower ration of 3 ozs. instead of the 4 ozs. basis at the beginning of February. I did not consider that we should reduce the ration until it was clear we had to do so. Even in midJanuary it appeared likely that the worst we would have to face would be a reduction to the 2 ozs. level for a week or two at the beginning of April. It was not until the January production figures became available and the weather conditions of February made it obvious that the February production figures would also show a decline, that the reduction of the ration from 1st March had to be decided upon.
The weather has been the decisive factor in this situation. I presume that at some stage the Dáil will discuss the general policy to be followed in relation to the development of the creamery industry. As the House is aware, a committee has considered all aspects of that question and published a report, and that report has, I think, been discussed in the Dáil. I am not aware that there is any decisive difference of opinion amongst Parties in the Dáil on the recommendations of the committee.
I do not want to discuss that question; I merely want to make it clear that the reduction in the butter ration is due to a substantial fall in butter production over the whole of last year and a catastrophic fall during the  winter months because of weather conditions, and it would not be practicable to maintain the ration at the 6 ozs. level for a longer period or to maintain it now at the 4 ozs. level without taking the risk that at some period in April there would be no butter at all.
If weather conditions improve during March, if production in March is not below production in March, 1946, if production in April is as high as production in April, 1946, the ration can be restored earlier; but with weather conditions as they are and knowing the effect they must have on conditions throughout the country generally, it is, I think, necessary to assume that there will be a decline in production next month, and possibly a decline in April also. Consequently, prudence necessitates the decision to reduce the ration to ensure that the available supplies will be evenly spread.
It is not practicable to segregate the population of the country into those who should be able to produce their own butter and those who cannot do so. In present circumstances, I am sure that there are many people in the country who normally produce their own butter but who are not getting supplies and who have to draw upon the stocks available in the shops. While it is clear from the figures that that has not taken place to an extraordinary extent, it has taken place to some extent, and there is, in present circumstances, an inevitable increase in demand by reason of the fact that people who do not ordinarily purchase creamery butter are now forced to do so. They, however, will have to be content with the same ration as everybody else and to supplement that ration with the margarine supply which will be made available.
The Dáil adjourned at 9.35 p.m. until 3 p.m. on Wednesday, February 26th.
Dáil Éireann 104 In Committee on Finance. Adjournment Debate—Reduction of Butter Ration.