HC Deb 11 May 1951 vol 487 cc2357-75

1.59 p.m.

Miss Burton (Coventry, South)

Today, when the cost of living is so much in the minds of all of us, men and women alike, in this House and outside, I think we would all agree that anything that can be done to reduce that cost should be done. I believe that one of the most irritating things in that increased cost of living today is the ridiculously high prices which all of us have to pay for home grown fruits and vegetables.

I want today to deal particularly with the position as it affects vegetables. I think that this is particularly irritating because most of us eat a good many vegetables. We have to go to the same shops very often and every time we go we are confronted with an apparent rise in cost. I believe that that is made all the more irritating because from the other end of the scale we continuously hear from the growers who produce the vegetables that they get a bare pittance only for them and that it is hardly worth while their growing them at all.

All of us in the House could quote examples, and I am not taking particular ones here to bolster up my case, because I can assure the Government Front Bench that I do not think that it needs any bolstering. All housewives will agree with that. Last week in a small shop on the outskirts of London—not a wealthy suburb—housewives told me that they were asked 2s. 6d. for a small cauliflower and that that was the cheapest; they were asked 8½d. for spring greens; 6d. for Egyptian onions; and they were asked 6d. a lb. for what I can only call the "green ends" of the said 2s. 6d. cauliflowers. Anybody who knows anything about the outside leaves of cauliflowers knows that they consist mostly of thick stalk up the middle, and so these poor shoppers were being asked to pay 6d. a lb. for "green ends," mostly stalk.

In another area new potatoes were 6d. per lb. and when those shoppers went back this week, on Tuesday, to the same shop they were asked 7½d. The protests which reached me were not only about the increase in cost, but about the reason. I think it was not only incredible, but a piece of effrontery, that when they asked the reason the retailers took this attitude, saying that the potatoes had gone up from 6d. to 7 ½d. because "old potatoes are getting scarce." That amounts to a deliberate fleecing of the customer, and I would deny that reason entirely.

Having mentioned last week I should, of course, like to agree that the recent bad weather has made the supplies of vegetables scarce, and that this increases prices; but there is not one man or woman in this country, whether in the trade or whether a customer, who would not agree that these high prices have been with us for a very long time, and have not suddenly come just because of the bad weather.

Today's, I think, may be termed the third bite at this problem. On 5th February we were able to discuss in this House the rise in price of fruits and vegetables at the weekends, and I think that there was universal agreement that such was the case. Some of the reactions were rather interesting. The wholesalers in my own City of Coventry immediately rushed in—and nobody had mentioned them, of course—to say that this was untrue. The retailers, on the other hand, rushed in equally fast to explain why it was that prices did go up at the weekends. Although my own local newspaper, the day after that debate, did carry headlines to the effect that my statements were ridiculous, fantastic and entirely wrong, I think that there is little doubt that we did prove our point.

In general, the attitude of the trade seemed to be that prices did go up and that they went up because there was a greater demand at the weekends. I do not think the trade understands that neither the general public nor the Members of this House—I hope—would agree that an increased demand when supplies are plentiful is any reason for prices going up. One particularly outspoken trader who came to a big public meeting we had in Coventry—really, to explain exactly how wrong I was—does not understand, I think, to this day why it was that the entire audience laughed when he said, "Well, we charge you more at the weekends because you have more money in your pockets on Fridays and Saturdays."

Then there was a second bite at this problem on 3rd April when we dealt in this House with the question of the costs of distribution. Here the reaction again, I think, was particularly interesting. We Members of this House know full well that when we are able to raise anything here those of our constituents, or of the public in general, who do not agree with us—or trade interests—are always very careful to write in to tell us so.

Following that debate on the distribution costs I did not receive one single letter from the trades associations or from individual retailers or from consumers, saying that my statements were incorrect. The one difficult point was that, while everybody agreed that there was this enormous difference in price between what the grower received and what the public had to pay in the shops, not one of the people who wrote to me could explain where that difference went. Nobody was getting too much profit at all.

It may be remembered that in the examples taken in that debate of particular vegetables we found that the differences in prices, from the money going to the growers and that paid by the consumers in the shops, ranged from 400 per cent. to 700 per cent.—except in one instance, and that was in potatoes, which are price controlled, and where the difference was 75 per cent. In Coventry, the Coventry and District Wholesale Fruit and Vegetable Merchants Association very kindly provided me with figures for one particular week in January, and from those figures it was shown that none of them received a profit greater than 10 per cent., on the goods he sold.

It was difficult, as I reminded the House then, to make a very valid comparison because I had not got the retail figures for Coventry itself, but I did take the retail figures for the same vegetables for the industrial Midlands, of which Coventry is a part. We were then looking at a difference in price from a very narrow viewpoint. We were looking at differences in prices between what the wholesaler received for the goods from the retailer, and the actual price at which the retailers sold the goods in the shops—a very short journey. This vegetable price range, between what the wholesaler received and what the consumer was charged, was from 85 per cent. to more than 150 per cent.

Following that debate the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food, whom I am so glad to see on the Front Bench again today, told us that the distribution of vegetables was haphazard and difficult. If it is so haphazard and difficult that the prices received by the grower and paid by the consumer vary by 700 per cent. then it is time it was changed. We have apparently got support from everyone, growers, wholesalers, retailers and consumers. Surely we can get something done now? My invitation is an invitation to the Government Front Bench. Will not they come in and join our ranks to make a fifth side to the mass of people who are determined to do something about this?

Last month the Retail Fruit Trade Federation held its annual conference, and at that annual conference they asked the Government to take action to cut the housewives' fruit and vegetable bill. The first reason was that they were aware of the growing criticism of shoppers. In that they are quite correct, and if the Parliamentary Secretary is not aware of it I can assure him that housewives are getting more and more weary of being constantly frustrated over the rises in prices, and of nothing being done about it. Second, the Federation wanted to smooth out price fluctuations. Well, we all agree with them there. I should think that everybody who does his own shopping must know full well how that if one has time to go from shop to shop one can find wide variations in the prices charged for exactly the same quality goods.

The third point which the Federation made was that they wanted to improve the supply and quality of home grown products. Nothing could be better than this attitude, but I quarrel with one statement made by the Secretary to the Federation at that conference. It was reported in the "Fruit Trades' Journal" for 5th May, and he said that it was "rubbish" to suggest in Parliament that the British housewife was paying more than was reasonable for her greengroceries. Well, she definitely is paying a lot more than is reasonable, and prices which I consider are fantastic.

The conference wished to be constructive and suggested that there should be established a publicly controlled horticultural Commission, that it should supervise the national supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables, that it should be independent and have wide statutory powers to enforce any controls and reorganisation it believed necessary. What do the Government feel about that?

The Federation went on to say that the producer marketing boards set up under existing legislation could not solve the industry's problems. I do not propose to enter into that question today, because I have not the time and do not consider at the moment that I know enough about it to comment. They went on to say something rather more significant, that the effect of this year's unceasing rain on supplies has emphasised the weakness of the present marketing arrangements.

The Government have declared time and again since 1945 that it is their firm intention to take some sort of action designed to improve the distribution of fruit and vegetables. I emphasise again that there is little doubt that it does need improvement. On the question of the growers, I wish to ask the Government if they and the trade together can improve the present packaging position. I know materials are scarce, but I am not convinced that sufficient use is being made of the packaging materials available. If produce which is unsaleable reaches the market, apart from that produce being thrown away, it is the consumer who has to pay. If the Government and the trade would get together on this, they could surely find some means of preventing this unsaleable produce getting into the chain of distribution in the first place.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks (Chichester)

Can the hon. Lady develop a little more what she was saying about the waste of packaging materials? I agree that this is a most important point. If she can help us by indicating whether there is any misuse, or a lack of use of available packaging materials, I think she will be doing a service to the House.

Miss Burton

I will do my best. I hope that the hon. Member will be able to develop that theme if he has better information than I have.

Recently, I went to Covent Garden and had an opportunity of seeing imported produce and produce from our own producers. There was no doubt at all about it, and I make this sweeping statement, that our produce does not compare with the imported produce either in grading or in packing. I spoke to a good many of the growers there, as well as to wholesalers, and they were of the opinion that it would be very difficult to get rid of this poor produce in our wholesale markets unless the growers were encouraged to pack their goods and grade them better. They were very fair. They recognised that packaging materials were obviously scarce and that Government help would be needed. They told me that they did not feel the growers themselves were making the best use of what was available. I pass that on as a general observation and not as a comment of my own, because I do not know the position.

On the question of the wholesalers, I think everyone will agree that the wholesale markets are far too small. They are old, and because they are old they have no facilities for keeping perishable goods. There is very little doubt that far too many people are handling the goods at the wholesale stage, which is another addition to the cost. I think I may be getting into trouble on the question of the retailers, but I am trying to be fair, and I have tried to find out the general attitude of the retailers in the country. My general criticism is that the retailers in general are content with a high profit on a limited turnover, rather than a bigger turnover and a smaller profit, which would come to the same thing in the end financially. It would entail more work if they tried to get a larger turnover, but it would obviously help the growers when supplies were plentiful. Having said that, I realise that it is an understandable attitude owing to the perishable nature of the goods. But a high profit on a limited turnover hits the housewife.

The Retail Fruit Federation suggested a Commission. If that idea were adopted by the Government, presumably these points concerning the growers, wholesalers and retailers would be inquired into. If the Government do not accept the suggestion—and I do not see what more the Retail Fruit Federation can do—then they have to suggest an alternative. I have always attacked the Opposition both in the House and in the country for finding fault and being negative in not putting forward alternative policy. I am now turning my guns on the Parliamentary Secretary. It is no use my hon. Friend getting up and saying "We will think about this," or "It is a good idea." If the Government do not adopt the suggestion, then I want to know what they are doing about it.

Here is a suggestion which I hope they will be able to follow in the immediate future. After the last debate, the Covent Garden Tenants Association wrote to me. They read a report in the papers on distribution costs, and they wrote to me on the subject. They wanted to know whether the lettuce for which the grower received 2d. was the same lettuce which the retailer sold for 8d. I suggested that they should get HANSARD, in which they would see that unless one turned into a cabbage or a lettuce, it was impossible to make sure that it was the same lettuce. They were on a valid point here. I want my hon. Friend to come to my rescue and provide the evidence for us. I suggest that if the Ministry next month would follow through a consignment of lettuces or strawberries from the place where they were grown, in two or three areas, to the shops, it would show whether they were the same lettuces or strawberries, and we should be able to see where this enormous difference of 700 per cent. comes in. If the enormous difference of 700 per cent. suddenly disappears, then no one will be better pleased than the housewife, and I suggest to the Ministry that they should then do that for other vegetables as well.

We require, firstly, a better marketing intelligence, a pruning of the expenses of marketing and a simpler system of distribution. Secondly, we have, somehow, to bring the grower nearer to the retailer so that these highly perishable goods can be handled more speedily and waste avoided. Thirdly, I am convinced that the biggest item in the prices all of us pay for our home grown fruit and vegetables is not the cost of growing them but the cost of distribution. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] It is very nice that both sides are agreed on that particular point. The trade and the public also agree. But what are the Government going to do about it, and when, which is much more relevant.

I am very proud to be a supporter of this Government. They have done a grand job in the face of great difficulties and considerable opposition. It is an infinitely better Government than anything which could be produced from the other side. But that does not absolve them from doing nothing on this particular matter. I know—and here I am throwing a brick-bat at myself—that it is very different putting forward propositions from the back benches, from sitting on the Government Front Bench and having to carry them out.

I also appreciate, as all of us do, that the Government have a great many matters to consider at the present time. But they have been considering this matter for a very long time. If they are still doubtful about it, it is time that somebody made a decision. I would much rather that the Government took action which did not succeed than that they took no action at all. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to realise that all the women of this country who go to the shops and buy their own goods, and the men who go there shopping too, are very tired of these incessant high prices of fruit and vegetables and I am going to do all in my power to give the Government one big push to get something done.

2.21 p.m.

Mr. Deedes (Ashford)

I am very glad to have the opportunity of following the hon. Member for Coventry, South (Miss Burton). She has told a very good story with much of which I have no quarrel, but, like many stories, there are two sides to it. I quarrel not so much with what she has said, as with what she has left unsaid, and it is on one or two points in that respect that I want to say something now.

I believe that no other commodity can show an equal number of problems or of complex hazards, very difficult to organise, as the growing and the marketing of fruit and vegetables. The hon. Lady has complained that the Government have been a long time doing little about it. Far be it from me to answer for the Parliamentary Secretary, who will be answering in a moment, but I think that the main reason why the Government have done nothing about it, or that little has been done before, is that this is one of the most difficult subjects that anyone can tackle. I am probably anticipating what the hon. Gentleman will say. It really is a great mistake in a sphere of this kind, involving so many different things emanating from Nature, to believe that it can be set right by controls, regulations or even by commissions. If the hon. Lady has read the report which was produced some years ago on this subject she will realise that the same difficulties existed even then.

There is no conspiracy among retailers or wholesalers, or among growers—I do not think she attributes anything of the kind to the growers—and if she doubts my word I would like to refer her to "Report to Women," for February, 1951, a monthly review of the economic situation prepared in the Information Division of the Treasury. I think we can all accept it as reasonably free from party bias. It devotes itself to the very subject which the hon. Lady has just made. I would particularly direct her attention to one passage which deals with the question: "Why are the prices of some vegetables higher than they were before the war?" The hon. Lady will see that not only is the possibility of a conspiracy dismissed, but that it is clear that the roots of the problem which she has raised go very deep indeed.

There are no subsidies on vegetables, except for potatoes, and therefore all vegetables and fruit are bound to appear relatively more expensive than they were before the war, in relation to some other commodities. We have a reminder that there have been increases in costs of production and of distribution since 1939, that farm wages are at three times the 1939 level and that necessities such as fertilisers are costing more than double. Distribution is more costly. Why? Because wages are higher than they were before the war and because the costs of packaging and transport have increased. On the subject of transport, I am sure the hon. Lady will agree that the cost is out of all proportion to the increase in the cost of the fruit and vegetables themselves. Finally come what are classed as overheads and wastage. Those are all points enumerated in the document to which I have referred, and which is free from political prejudice.

Miss Burton

I do not disagree with what the hon. Member has been saying, but I would point out that the case I have been putting is that there is far too wide a gap between what the grower receives and what the consumer pays. I would hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that it is too wide.

Mr. Deedes

I do agree, up to a point, but I want to turn to five factors which I believe will help to diminish the gap between the price to the grower and the price paid by the housewife. The first factor concerns the grower himself. In the hazardous business of growing fruit and vegetables, undoubtedly the biggest item is the weather. This is not recognised by people who live in towns, because there is often a time-lag between the effect of the weather on the fruit and vegetables and the result on the prices in the shops. There may be an interval, as there was last spring, of two or three months before the result is shown. Therefore, price is not always associated in the minds of townspeople with weather.

We have to remember that even in this mechanically-controlled age there are many operations in the growing of fruit and vegetables which cannot be mechanically controlled. The hon. Lady has mentioned strawberries and the fact that the grower is apt to charge a very high price. I have always recognised the right of the grower to charge a high price for the first of his goods to reach the market. That appears to be a perfectly logical playing of the law of supply and demand. If people want to eat strawberries in May they should pay the price for them, but that price should not be confused with the normal price of strawberries in the season. Where there is a hazard of weather, not to mention other hazards, it is only to be expected that the grower will make the best he can of the early part of the season.

Another factor is variable quality, which the hon. Lady touched on but did not explain. Some shops deal only in high quality. Others deal in lower quality. There are some qualities on the market which ought not to be there at all. At the same time, there are all sorts of shops selling all sorts of different qualities, and it is easy to go from one shop to another and imagine that somebody is being swindled. Further, wastage is normally far greater than anybody in the town would believe. I am sure that it would not be reduced by any form of central marketing scheme. If we are to try to do for vegetables what has already been done for eggs, then the condition of the goods when they arrive will be "uncertain and swimmy" as one of my hon. Friends has put it. The fruit and vegetables would arrive at the shops in a worse state than they do now.

The fourth factor is fluctuation in housewives' demand. The demand is by no means stable. It changes from time to time and neither grower nor retailer can always tell in advance what it will be. There are certain anomalies which are peculiar and unexplainable. For example, the cheapest stuff does not always sell fast, and very often the expensive stuff sells quickly. The cheapest stuff sometimes sits on the market unsold. I do not know why it is, but it is due to one of the whims of housewives.

Finally, it is said that profits in the retail business are higher than they should be. I would say that profits are in relation to risk and that the risks not only for the grower but for the retailer are considerable. If there are high profits, at least there are no signs of them in general prosperity of the fruit and vegetable retail trade. If the hon. Lady will consult the co-operative societies she will find that these particular departments are not very profitable.

On the authority of Mr. F. A. Secrett, who is one of the greatest authorities on horticulture, I can tell the House that, dealing with vegetables alone, no fewer than 45 types are in common use. Allowing for only 10 varieties in each type, and for each variety six brands, we reach the figure of 2,700 different commodities in the vegetable sector alone. They will give a considerable headache to anyone who attempts centralised marketing and planning of that commodity. This document also says: Any dynamic change in marketing methods would result in chaos. Much more would be achieved by improved methods of transport. There we have a point.

In conclusion, I would urge the hon. Lady to study the whole life story of the fish. Unlike man, the fish is free, free as air, yet the hon. Lady knows that by the time the fish arrive on the fishmonger's slab the variations in price are considerable. There is instability in price as great as in the vegetable or fruit market. If that can happen to fish, it can happen to carrots. What the hon. Lady seeks is stability for the grower and the housewife. In my opinion she will find it difficult, when up against so many natural factors. One comment which I would make is that if the hon. Gentleman's attention to this matter produced more stability as a result of liaison between the Ministries of Agriculture and Food, with the co-related import policy which would result, we should be very much better off than we are now. That is a matter not for growers, retailers and wholesalers but for hon. Gentlemen opposite.

Miss Burton

The hon. Gentleman is on a very bad wicket in talking to housewives about the price of fish. At the moment it does not commend itself to them.

2.31 p.m.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks (Chichester)

I should like to emphasise a point which the hon. Lady the Member for Coventry, South (Miss Burton), did not fully bring out. One of the basic elements of the problem that we want to overcome is the delay between the grower and the housewife. It is vastly to the advantage of the consumers if they can get their vegetables fresh, and one of the troubles that the community faces at present is the number of transactions through which vege- tables have to go between leaving the grower and arriving in the consumer's refrigerator.

If anything can be done to speed up the transmission of vegetables from grower to consumer, it will be of great advantage to the community as a whole, because the fresher the vegetables are when the consumer receives them, the greater will be their nutritional value, the more palatable and pleasanter they will be and the greater will be the satisfaction to the grower if he knows that his produce is being consumed in the condition in which he likes to consume it.

That is a distinct element, for the grower takes pride in the quality of his produce. It is a very difficult problem to overcome because of variations in the perishability of the commodity which are caused by the weather, but it is being overcome to a great extent—we ought not to overlook this aspect—by the producers themselves in the organisations which they are setting up to assist in marketing. If the Parliamentary Secretary can do anything through his Department to assist growers' associations, he will be contributing a great deal to a solution of the problem as a whole.

It is a difficult problem, but if the hon. Lady would extend her investigations and go round one of the central depots of the big growers' organisations she will realise that the growers themselves are tackling the problem from the other end in order to achieve very much the same results as she is seeking to achieve. There she will see being put to the most practical use buildings, appliances, timber and all those materials which the Ministries make it most difficult for us to obtain. If, through his Department, the Parliamentary Secretary can facilitate a greater availability of those materials to growers' organisations, which cannot function without an initial capital expenditure, he will be doing something to bring about from the growers' end, the objects which the hon. Lady is seeking to achieve.

There is another aspect of the matter which ought to be considered. I was hoping that the Minister of Transport would remain in the Chamber, but I see that he has left. The increases in transport charges for growers' products since the nationalisation of the transport industry have been terrific. One of the greatest bugbears has been the introduction of a minimum charge for the collection of any grower's produce. Particularly in wintertime when produce is short, the market is considerably bolstered up by the contributions of small growers, such as the odd crate of cabbage or cauliflower, and so on. For collecting the odd crate, the Road Transport Executive makes a minimum charge of 5s., and that makes it quite impossible for these small contributions to come to the market.

If the Parliamentary Secretary can use his influence with his right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport to get the Road Transport Executive to listen to the problems of the growers in regard to these prices, the speed with which the goods are delivered to the market and the care taken to see that the goods are properly protected and not submitted to the incidence of rain and frost by being improperly covered, he will be doing a considerable service to the community.

Before I resume my seat, I should like to say a word about a different aspect of the matter having regard to the remarks made by the hon. Lady about strawberries. Strawberries are one of the most difficult crops with which a grower has to deal. They are very highly perishable and have to be picked at exactly the right moment. Picking charges have gone up, and at present in the normal flush of the market the grower's price for strawberries does not exceed the picking charges.

2.37 p.m.

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

I shall resist any temptation to talk about fish and eggs and shall confine myself to the subject of fresh fruit and vegetables, save to say that eggs are a price review commodity and I do not think that the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) would suggest that they should be taken out of the price review.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Miss Burton) on coming back for the third round and raising the very important subject of fresh fruit and vegetables today. The main lesson to be learnt from the present discussion is that this is an extraordinarily difficult problem to solve. I am not tempted to an early solution simply because we are receiving pressure about this. It is far more important to reach a correct solution because of the many difficulties which arise in tackling the marketing and distribution of vegetables.

It is very comforting to find that there is today a measure of agreement about the problem, because that is new. One of the difficulties in tackling such a problem is that when hon. Gentlemen opposite were in power they were bewildered by following the spectre of the price mechanism. It is a fortunate thing that we all recognise now that the industry cannot be left entirely to the working of the price mechanism. It is significant that at annual conferences this year and last year the retailers were asking for very radical steps to be taken about the industry in which they play a very important part.

This afternoon I can add very little to what I have said previously about the essential problems. I believe it is agreed that what is, in essence, needed is a simplification of the present system; that the present facilities are inadequate and that what we have essentially to do is to improve the machinery. But we must first reach the correct conclusion, and then we must consult the trade. It will be appreciated that there is today a further difficulty. If steps are to be taken, they will probably involve capital investment and will, therefore, have to be co-ordinated with the other activities which the country is bound to take in the next few years in securing her defence.

I turn now to some of the points raised by my hon. Friend. On the last occasion, she threatened—and I thought it would be most unfortunate if she carried out her threat—to become a cabbage. I assure her that there is no need for her to suffer that sacrifice, and the House need not be disturbed that we shall suffer that loss. We are now carrying out inquiries, the purpose of which is to follow the same consignment through all the processes of distribution. It was suggested, I believe, that we should do this with regard to lettuces and strawberries.

We are doing it at present with regard to lettuces and other vegetables, and we shall certainly do it with regard to strawberries. It will take some few weeks before we can analyse the results of these inquiries, but we shall have them before us and then we shall be able to test the reliability of the figures which we now have. These are average figures, and have always been open to the objection that it is very difficult to argue from the point of view of averages when dealing with fresh fruit and vegetables.

Another point raised, not only by my hon. Friend, but by other hon. Members, is the question of packaging. In this respect, noticeable improvements are occurring in the trade. The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries tell me that they can report improvements, particularly regarding apples, tomatoes and lettuces, although the trade are faced with the difficulty that they have not available to them all the materials they would wish to have. Softwood supplies will probably improve, at any rate a little, but while supplies are short, there is all the more need for those in the trade to show some initiative and, perhaps, some ingenuity in dealing with this problem.

By way of illustration of the difficulties facing us, I want to say a few words about the present position. My hon. Friend referred to the incessant rain. As other hon. Members have pointed out, if we have bad weather, it is bound to affect the marketing and distribution of fruit and vegetables. Reference was also made to the question of imports, and I think an appeal was made for some correlated policy. That correlation exists at present. Both the Agricultural Departments and the Ministry of Food are looking at the position very carefully and taking the requisite steps in harmony. We must realise, of course, that the bad weather this year has not been an isolated phenomenon. There has also been bad weather on the Continent. Holland, particularly, and to a less degree France, have experienced weather not entirely dissimilar from that which we have experienced.

Regarding the vegetables to which reference has been made already, we have in each case looked at the general supply position and the position of our own growers because if we are interested in the housewife, she, in turn, has to be interested in our own growers. We cannot ensure adequate supplies at reasonable prices, at the entire disregard of our own growers. We must strike a balance in this. Turning by way of illustration to the cauliflower which was mentioned I would say to my hon. Friend that she should show the same buying ability that my wife shows. My wife has been able for the past few weeks to buy cauliflowers at a price less than half that which the hon. Lady paid in Coventry.

Miss Burton

I cannot let that pass. May I say in all politeness that perhaps the hon. Gentleman's wife is not a Member of this House and therefore has more time.

Mr. Willey

That may be; I am not going to argue the matter further. Of course, one of the difficulties about this is that very often there are inexplicable differences in price between different localities. All I can say is that in the locality in which I live, it is possible to buy a cauliflower much more cheaply.

Imports of cauliflowers were allowed under open general licence until 16th February. Then they came in under a quota of 10,000 tons. What we did in that case was until quite recently to allow the quota to be exceeded. It was not until 25th April that the ban on imported cauliflowers became operative. At that time, and it has remained so since, the supply of home-produced cauliflowers was adequate to meet the demand. In fact, the price of cauliflowers has not risen since then. In the case of lettuces we extended the open general licence which would otherwise have been suspended on 1st May. It has been extended to 16th May which means that it is still operative.

Apart from these vegetables, the only others which are likely to come in from the Continent during the next month or two are peas, beans, new carrots, turnips, tomatoes, and, of course, early potatoes. In the case of peas, they would come in under the normal arrangements of the open general licence until 16th June, after which date there would be no quota. Green beans came in under open general licence until 1st May, and thereafter under quota. Carrots would come in under open general licence until 8th June and thereafter there would be no quota. New turnips came in until 1st May under open general licence and thereafter come in under a limited quota. Tomatoes, again, come in under open general licence until 16th June and then, until 30th June, are subject to quota.

As I have said, in the case of lettuces we have extended the period of open general licence for 14 days. In the case of green peas we are extending the period of open general licence from 16th June for a further week, and, again, in the case of new potatoes, we are extending the operation of the open general licence from 10th June to 16th June. In the case of carrots we shall watch the position to see how home supplies appear likely to meet the demand. In the case of those commodities I have mentioned which are subject after the suspension of the open general licence to quota arrangements, we will do exactly the same as we have done in the case of cauliflowers. We shall watch the matter to see how far home supplies go to meet the demands of the housewife.

I do not think we can do more. This is an example of co-relationship between the agricultural departments and the Ministry of Food. Of course, the difficulties which will soon arise will not be caused by the arrangements I have been describing, but by the ban imposed by the Importation of Plants Order. We have to safeguard our own industry against the Colorado beetle. I do not think any one would suggest that in view of the temporary difficulties that may face us in May or June, we should prejudice our essential horticultural industry. It will be the Colorado beetle and the threat of it that will prevent imports which might otherwise have come.

As attention has been drawn to the question of price, may I say a word or two about the difficulties of price control, some of which were indicated by the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes)? These are commodities in which quality and demand play an essential part in determining price, but I do not think the House should have any misleading impression about present day prices. I would say, first of all, that even during the war, it was recognised that some vegetables were not amenable to price control. At no time during the war were prices of beans, peas, lettuces, celery or mushrooms controlled. It would be extremely difficult to control, for instance, the price of lettuces by weight. With regard to the others, however, I think the House should appreciate that, on the whole, during the past few months the prices of winter cabbage, savoys and, at any rate for a period, spring greens were below the old controlled retail prices which were operative as long ago as 1945–46, and that the prices of a number of other commodities such as beetroots, parsnips, carrots and swedes have been running at or about controlled prices.

When one pays regard to the fact that there have been increased costs—some of these factors were referred to by the hon. Member for Ashford—we should make allowance for the fact that over a wide range of vegetables—cauliflowers are an exception, their price is running into a few pence above the controlled price—by and large the bulk of our supplies, notwithstanding that they are not subsidised, have been running at about or, perhaps, below the controlled prices.

We have to recognise the position, that if we get an abrupt reduction in the amount which is produced, this is bound to reflect itself on price levels. If a grower is badly hit by the weather and, through no fault of his own, produces less, there must inevitably be some price adjustment to cover him for, at any rate, his production costs. At the same time, we have to watch the position closely and pay regard to it, for it is in circumstances such as these that there is an invitation to exploitation.

My advice, therefore, to my hon. Friend during the next few weeks is to continue her researches and to satisfy herself that if price increases occur, they reflect the supply position, and that if not, she carries on her very good practice of being a market intelligence officer to the housewives of Coventry and, I hope, the country; and that if prices become unreasonable, the housewife will show the same resistance to such unreasonable prices as she has shown recently in other instances.

Meanwhile, however attractive it may be as a proposition, 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. What we have to do is to try to get this matter right and to try also to carry with us at any rate the most enlightened elements of the trade.