HC Deb 27 July 1951 vol 491 cc914-22

4.5 p.m.

Miss Burton (Coventry, South)

I will try to give the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food as much time as possible in which to reply to what I have to say by talking as fast as I can. I have been waiting hopefully since 12.40 p.m. to raise in this House, for the fourth time, the matter of Government action concerning the prices of fish, rabbits and home-grown fruit and vegetables.

I propose to start with fish and rabbits, and to deal with them separately. I do not know what the Ministry of Food feels, but there is not the slightest doubt that, during the last 12 months, there has been a very strong belief on the part of housewives that the price of fish and the price of rabbits should be controlled. I can only assume that the Ministry itself has not been aware of this belief.

I should like to thank the Parliamentary Secretary for giving me information on this point. I have always felt that, possibly, the Ministry had a case for not controlling the price of fish and of rabbits. I asked the Parliamentary Secretary recently if he would give me some information on the matter, and I am most grateful to him, especially as I told him that the information might be used in evidence against him. Today I wish to use the information in evidence for him.

I was informed that, in the case of fish, price control was ended on 15th April, 1950, and that, apart from an immediate short-term rise and subsequent fall which gained a good deal of publicity, the end of control had little effect on the prices of cod and haddock. Those prices remained level throughout the summer. Going on from there, the Parliamentary Secretary informed me that, since May of this year, the price of fish had been near the old controlled levels, and sometimes below them.

He made the point, which I think is perfectly fair and true, that this is a low level in view of the increased costs which have taken place since de-control. I believe—and I am quoting here from memory—that when the representatives of the fish trade saw the Minister some little time ago, when prices were very high, they informed him that, if the housewife would just wait for another six weeks or so, prices would fall. They said that if control were to be reimposed, it would mean that fish would just disappear from the shops.

As a perfectly ordinary housewife, I want to ask the Ministry of Food if they see any reason why the trade should assume that the housewife should just wait for another six weeks for prices to fall. Secondly, I want to ask if it is not completely unethical to say that, if prices were controlled, the fish would disappear from the shops. If that is the case, then I believe that the anger and criticism of the public should be directed not against the Ministry of Food but against the trade. That is the first point I should like to make.

I come to the question of rabbits. The Parliamentary Secretary informed me that, in the autumn of 1949, the public demand for rabbits fell away. By May, 1950, the Ministry was holding a stock of about 10,000 tons of imported rabbits. There has been a slump in prices. The Parliamentary Secretary tells me that today retail prices, which vary according to the type, quality and district, are in some places as low as 1s. a pound. But in the letter which the Parliamentary Secretary was good enough to let me have he said that it was almost certain that price control would cause the home-produced rabbits to disappear from the home market.

I am very anxious to get the greatest possible publicity on this question of the reaction of the trade that, if either fish or rabbits were subject to price control, they would disappear from the shops. I think it is disgraceful, and that the public should be aware that this is the reaction of the trade to any effort made by the Government to impose fair prices.

I come now to the position of the Ministry of Food and the case they put forward for not reimposing control, and I would say that certainly the housewives of this country were not prepared to take up that case because they did not know it. I think this is a matter which any Government of the day and any Opposition must decide. I believe that the Minister of Food should have gone on the air, and should have explained to the public of this country as Minister of Food, why it was not in the best interests of the community to control the prices of rabbits and of fish, and that it is the duty of any Government and of any opposition to decide what is party political matter for broadcasting and what is Governmental and in the interests of the people. I believe that the Minister of Food should have done that, and I think that he should do it an any case which there may be in future.

Moving on from that, I come to something which is rather distasteful to me. I do not think that any hon. Member on this side of the House is ever happy—I personally am not—when he criticises Ministers on his own side. It is much more agreeable to criticise the Opposition. I have been placed in a real quandary on this occasion.

I have spoken in the House three times on this matter, I have spoken to the Minister privately and also with my colleagues present, and I have told him what I think. All of it seems to have failed in any way to move the Minister of Food, and my only alternative was to sit here hopefully today in case the opportunity should arise as I had informed the Parliamentary Secretary two days ago that I intended to be critical of the Minister, but I did not know whether or not it was possible for him to be here. I thought it was only fair to say that.

I want to come now to this question of following goods through by consignment from the growers to the shops. In this House, on 11th May, when dealing with the prices of home grown fruit and vegetables, I asked the Minister of Food if he would follow through from the grower to the retailer certain goods, and I instanced, in particular, lettuces and strawberries.

As is customary in this House, I gave the Parliamentary Secretary a few days earlier an outline of what I was going to say. I did, however, do the hon. Gentleman a great injustice, and I am quite prepared to admit it, because when I saw the newspapers the following day, on 12th May, which gave a report of the debate to which I referred, I really thought that the Ministry of Food had tried to appropriate my idea and take it unto themselves. However, I saw, from the reply of the Parliamentary Secretary on 11th May, and it is in column 2382 of HANSARD, that he told me: We are doing it at present"— that is, following through— with regard to lettuces and other vegetables and we shall certainly do it with regard to strawberries."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th May, 1951; Vol. 487, c. 2382.] That was on 11th May. I do not know how well-informed the Parliamentary Secretary is as to how long it takes lettuces to come from the growers to the shops. I have made as many detailed inquiries as I can, and I have been told that, if the process were up to time, it should not take more than two days at the most for the lettuces to reach the shops. I am going to be generous with my hon. Friend, and I will give him four days; indeed, I do not mind giving him a week. On the statements of the hon. Gentleman himself on 11th May, this was actually being done.

I would like to ask him when it started. When did the Ministry of Food begin to follow through these lettuces? However old and tired the lettuces may have been, it seems to me not unreasonable to ask why, ten weeks later, information about them is not available.

I wish to ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether he remembers the reply of his right hon. Friend in this House on Monday, 16th July, when I asked him what information had been obtained by this following-through. The reply, which was noted for its brevity, was to the effect that this inquiry was still going on. I want to say—and I say it with the full knowledge of its seriousness—that I do not believe the Minister of Food should have accepted that answer from his Department to give in this House. I believe that if inquiries had been going on for 10 or 11 weeks regarding the following through of actual goods, which took four days to reach their destination, the results should have been available. I think that the Minister should have returned that reply to his Department and should have demanded the figures.

On the same day—16th July—the Minister went on to say that there was no need for me to impress urgency on the Ministry, and that he could not allow this particular problem to be settled on the basis of platform generalisations. I have many faults, but I do not generalise, and I would now like to give the Parliamentary Secretary some information on this particular matter, which is not a generalisation.

On Thursday, 19th July, the "Coventry Evening Telegraph" dealt in its leading article with the question of vegetable prices. It was a report of a Major Carter, who is an authority on fruit and vegetables and who was speaking to the members of the Warwickshire Women's Institutes. Major Carter talked of growers ploughing in lettuces and cabbages because they could not get a halfpenny for them.

In Coventry today the housewife is paying 8d. for a lettuce and 4d. per lb. for a cabbage. I talked yesterday in this House to several Members with agricultural knowledge, and they informed me that it was not peculiar to Warwickshire for growers to be ploughing in lettuces because they could not get a good price for them. I myself am paying 10d. and 1s. in London today, and the housewives in Coventry are paying 8d. and 4d. The "Coventry Evening Telegraph," being more optimistic than I am, said last week: Next week the Food Minister (Mr. Webb) is expected to announce the action to be taken by the Government on the distribution of fruit and vegetables. He will also report the results of the investigation concerning the distribution of actual consignments of lettuces and other vegetables. On Monday last I had two Questions down to the Minister of Food concerning those two actual points. I put them off for another week, and, therefore, I am now speaking without knowledge, but I believe that had the Questions remained on the Order Paper I should have got a reply to much the same effect as that which I got the previous week, which was nil. I have the same Questions down for next Monday, and I am wondering whether after another week we may get a little further.

Another point with which I want to deal concerns the matter of the distribution of home-grown fruit and vegetables, which, of course, affects the price. On 3rd February, I raised on the Adjournment debate in this House the question of the rising prices of fruit and vegetables in the country at week-ends. I did not give generalities, but the actual figures for Coventry, London, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol. On 3rd April, again in this House, I raised the question of the distribution costs of home-grown fruit and vegetables. On that occasion, again, I did not use generalities, but gave actual figures for cabbages, carrots, turnips, lettuces and potatoes. Indeed, I was indebted to the Ministry for many of those figures, so they could not be called generalities.

In that debate I drew the attention of the House to the fact that the difference in the price of controlled produce between what the grower receives and what the retailers charge in the shops was 75 per cent. and that in the free market, where we are subject to the availability of supplies and to variety of quality and demand it ranged from 400 to 700 per cent. And the Minister of Food actually dares to get up in this House and tell me that is a generality when I have given him the figures. I think that was disgraceful.

If we go on from there we come to the reply of the Parliamentary Secretary on 3rd April, when he told me: We are not thinking about this for the first time. It is a very difficult problem. We have the Linlithgow Committee Report in 1923, and we have had considerable research made over the last few years. The Government are giving their active and earnest attention and consideration to these problems. …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd April, 1951; Vol. 486, c. 173.] That Report was received in 1923, and the Government has been giving it active and earnest consideration. I think we ought to have got a little bit further by now. On 11th May, when I raised in debate the question of fruit and vegetables, which had been in the minds of some people since 1923 and in the minds of this Government since 1945, the Parliamentary Secretary told me: The main lesson to be learnt from the present discussion is that this is an extraordinarily difficult problem to solve. Well, I got as far as that for myself. The "other point he made was: … I do not think we can launch into a policy which must determine the shape of the marketing and distribution of fruit and vegetables for a long time, merely because of the pressure of present temporary circumstances."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th May, 1951; Vol. 487, c. 2381, 2386.] Temporary circumstances which have gone on for six years I do not regard any longer as being temporary. I am sorry I had to say this. It is against a Minister on my own side. I think this Government have done a first-class job, but I wish they would understand the psychological reaction of people in this country to a policy which all the time shows the Government do not seem to be impressed with the urgency of this situation.

4.22 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Mr. Frederick Willey)

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Miss Burton) should proceed to make some constructive suggestions about the problem she has put before us. So far, she has only used the Adjournment to bring to the notice of the House facts I have previously made available to her.

Miss Burton rose

Mr. Willey

No, I cannot give way. As I know she is interested in this problem, what I should like her to do is to make constructive and helpful suggestions and tell us how they should be implemented. Then we would be in a better position to discuss this further. With regard to consignments, what I said on a previous occasion was that we had carried out such inquiries and we would proceed to carry out further inquiries. I do not know where she gets the idea of our appropriating something she had thought about. We have records at the Ministry of some inquiries and, as I explained to the House, we are at the moment carrying out further inquiries.

We are inquiring into lettuces, strawberries, peas, cauliflowers and cabbages in certain selected production and distribution areas. I do not know what my hon. Friend wants me to do. What I want to do is to see, first of all, that the results are comprehensive before we comment on them and draw conclusions from them. It would be quite easy to check a consignment over a two-day delivery period, but if we are to investigate present consignments we should cover the whole period of the availability and marketing of the products into which we are inquiring.

My hon. Friend knows as well as I do that this season some kinds of produce have been extraordinarily late. In any case, it would take several weeks to analyse and process—that is the technical word which is used these days—these inquiries and draw conclusions from them. Nothing would be more undesirable when we are making such a comprehensive inquiry than to endeavour, at an intermediate stage, to draw conclusions from partial results. This is only a matter of weeks. Let us complete the inquiries and then we can make the information available and reach conclusions upon it.

I should like to take this opportunity of saying that so far—and I hope it will continue—we have received valuable assistance from all sections of the trade in carrying out these investigations. I think the trade realises that generalisations are being made by some people and that it would be to the advantage of everyone concerned if we could get some more specific information. That is what we are endeavouring to obtain.

As I have previously emphasised, obtaining this information is not at all easy. It is a very difficult matter to be sure that one is getting reliable results from inquiries which it is quite impossible to keep confidential. The mere fact that it is known that inquiries are being made may affect particular markets. At any rate, we have endeavoured to carry out these inquiries as discreetly as possible, and I hope that when we have completed them—it should only be a matter of weeks now—we shall have some information which will be of value not only to ourselves, but to those taking part in the trade.

I have nothing further to say—at least, I have no opportunity to say—anything further about fruit and vegetables except to add, as the Chancellor told the House yesterday, that this is a matter in which we are pursuing our inquiries and we will make recommendations to the House. But I am no more anxious than I was last time to be hurried in coming to a conclusion on this business. It is a difficult matter, but I hope that in due course we shall be able to produce a scheme which will be of advantage to the housewives. That is at any rate what we intend to do.

On the other two matters raised, rabbits and fish, I am glad to say that on these matters I have convinced my hon. Friend that what we have done so far has been right. The position about rabbits is this. There has never been any effective control of home-trapped rabbits. Although a control was exercised from 1941 onwards, it was never effective so far as home-trapped rabbits were concerned. It was part of an operation under which there was bulk purchase of Australian rabbits. In the winter of last year we were faced with the position that if rabbit prices were to be reduced the only effective step to take would have been to have bought in Australian rabbits. But that was not the time of the Australian rabbit season. To bring in these rabbits, therefore, was something physically beyond us.

We explained all this at the time and I should have hoped that my hon. Friend would have known this, because it is a matter that we have not kept to ourselves. The result has been that now that the Australian rabbits are coming on to the market the prices are considerably less than they were six months ago. This is a commodity the price of which has been falling over the last six months.

As for fish, the difficulty last winter was that any effective control of fish cannot be introduced overnight. It is a fairly elaborate form of control demanding a fair amount of manpower and qualified accountants. It was not an easy matter to introduce. Again, to refer the House to the statement made by the Chancellor yesterday, we shall, if necessary, take action to enforce an effective control in the coming winter. Meanwhile, we can say that over the period since de-control the housewife has had' the benefit of a substantial part of the supplies very largely at or about controlled prices.

The Question having been proposed at Four o'Clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Half-past Four o'Clock.