§ 2. Miss Burton
asked the Minister of Food whether he is aware that the price of tea has risen since decontrol; that many old people now cannot afford to buy an adequate amount; and, as further price increases have just take place, if he will consider the imposition of price control.
I would refer the hon. Member to the reply given to the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay),and the hon. Members for Sunder-land, North (Mr. Willey), Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher), Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton), and West Ham, North (Mr. Lewis) on 14th February.
§ Miss Burton
While not having by me those answers—I expect they were allunsatisfactory—may I ask the Minister whether he has noticed how some shopkeepers are selling tea at reduced prices to old people because they cannot afford to buy it? Does the Minister approve of this? If not, is he prepared to do something to help the old people?
I am very glad to hear of every effort that shopkeepers make to sell these commodities at the lowest possible price. As regards the old people, my latest figures do not show any reduction in the consumption of tea by old-age pensioners. The hon. Lady will know the steps that the Government have recently taken to improve the lot of old-age pensioners.
There is no action that I can take which would be effective at the present time. I am certainly not willing to take action unless I see a chance of it being effective.
The difference between hon. Members opposite and we on this side of the House is that we do not always believe that Government action is the best way of ensuring the best possible supply of food to this country so far as quality, quantity and price are concerned.
§ Mr. Nabarro
Is it not a fact that the average price of tea has risen since derationing from 3s. 6d. to 7s. 6d. per lb., and the average consumption for an old-age pensioner is slightly more than 2 oz. per week? Does it not, therefore, follow that the old-age pensioner is being called upon to pay 7d. per week per head more for tea, which is many, many times offset by the large increases in old-age pensions?
§ 9. Mr. G. Jeger
asked the Minister of Food whether he will take action by Government purchase to build up stocks of tea, in view of the shortage of supplies in relation to demand.
No, Sir. To attempt to build up stocks by Government purchase would only force up the price.
I cannot think of any action which would force prices up farther than the Government going into the market as buyers.
§ Mr. Strachey
Could the right hon. Gentleman tell us what he and his hon. Friends would have said of our methods of bulk purchase of tea if they had resulted in a rise in price comparable with this rise?
I would remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Government in which he was a Minister did away with the bulk purchase of tea in 1951.
§ 12. Mr. Willey
asked the Minister of Food whether, in view of the increasing retail price of tea, he will consult the representatives of the tea trade in order to introduce a scheme of voluntary control of tea prices.
§ 19. Mr. Chetwynd
asked the Minister of Food if he will have discussions with the Tea Trade Committee about the supply and price of tea, in order to ensure an agreed scheme for the voluntary reduction of prices and the maintenance of adequate supplies.
§ 27. Miss Bacon
asked the Minister of Food his plans for discussions with the tea trade to find an agreed basis of price stabilisation in order to prevent a recurrence of the rise in price.
I am in regular consultation with the tea trade. The dominant factor is the price of tea at the international auctions, and I am satisfied that the tea trade in this country is doing its best to keep the price to the consumer as low as possible.
§ Mr. Willey
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the tea trade, contrary to what he has said, maintains that the supply is slightly in excess of demand at the present time? In view of this, does he not think that there is a clear case for Government intervention? Is it not shocking that, whereas the threatened price rise has been rescinded by the action of this side of the House, the Government have done nothing at all?
I cannot accept the conclusion of the hon. Gentleman. He seems to be saying simply, "Something must be done." [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] I remember that Lord Melbourne once said that he usually found that when a Member of Parliament said that something must be done he was about to suggest something extremely stupid.
§ Mr. Jay
In view of the pledges which the party opposite gave at the last Elec- 856 tion to bring the cost of living down, is there not a special obligation on the Minister now to take some action? Will he specifically give an assurance now that he will approach the representatives of the tea trade and ask them to introduce a system of voluntary price control, if he will not introduce compulsory control?
I believe that the nation is well satisfied with the direction in which things are going, and not dissatisfied with the progress which has been achieved. As to the last part of the question, I do not think that that action would be at all helpful and I do not believe that it would lead to effective result.
§ Mr. Chetwynd
Is it not clear that something has been done, and that as a result of pressure from this side of the House the tea magnates have abated their rapacity, and for the time being have put their promised increase in cold storage? Why do not the Government take action and not go on saying that they are completely helpless in this matter?
§ Miss Bacon
Is the Minister not aware that not only Members of Parliament but the whole nation think something should be done? Is he saying, in effect, that the Government are prepared to do nothing except consult the tea traders, and to take no action whatsoever to prevent a further rise in prices?
The Government would certainly not hesitate to take action if they could see action which would be appropriate on their part, and effective. The situation is that the present price of tea is due to the relatively strong demand as against the supply available. When that balance is corrected, the price will come down.
§ Sir T. Moore
Is there not something "phoney" about all this? [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Would my right hon. Friend say how we can raise the standard of living of the backward countries, which we all want to do, including hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite, if we do not pay higher prices to the producers in those countries?
§ Mr. Gaitskell
Since the right hon. Gentleman has placed the blame for this situation on the producers of tea, will he say what discussions he had with the 857 Prime Minister of Ceylon and the Prime Minister of India when they were in this country recently?
The right hon. Gentleman is under a misapprehension. I did not lay the blame for present prices on the producers.
§ Mr. Gaitskell
Nevertheless, will the right hon. Gentleman say whether he took advantage of the presence of those Prime Ministers in this country to discuss this vitally important matter with them?
§ Dr. Summerskill
Are the increased prices which the producers are getting being passed to the employees?
§ Viscount Hinchingbrooke
Are not these questions extremely useful—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—in that they build up an overwhelming case for the return of rationing, which millions of consumers would utterly repudiate?
§ 14. Miss Burton
asked the Minister of Food what reply he has sent to the telegram from the national President of the National Union of Small Shopkeepers concerning the refusal of the Government to hold an inquiry into the problem of tea prices and profits.
§ Miss Burton
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the public are very mystified about this matter, except for the fact that they have to pay for these increases? Would he explain to the people how it is that when prices fall at the tea auctions prices do not come down in the shops? Why are the Government prepared to do everything to cover up these increases? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we have been told by the Prime Minister of Ceylon that Mincing Lane is to blame for the increases? Has he any comment to make?
I think that I have given a reply to this supplementary question about three times already. The present price depends on the price at the auctions, and that is a price which Her Majesty's 858 Government are not in a position to control. As far as the remarks of the Prime Minister of Ceylon go, I think that if he and I got involved in a discussion on the proper margin for retail prices, both of us might well find ourselves in waters of great technical depth.
§ Mr. Strachey
Would the right hon. Gentleman not agree that it remains a fact that the method used by the late Government of procuring tea by bulk purchase for many years succeeded in keeping the price down, during a period of far greater shortage in supply than exists today? [HON. MEMBERS: "Who gave it up?"] May it not have been an error on the part of whoever did it to give up that process? In the light of the consequences seen today, would not the Minister consider going back to that method of procuring, which kept the price down?
§ 17. Lieut.-Colonel Lipton
asked the Minister of Food whether, in view of the fact that tea prices at London auctions have fallen, he will take steps, by price control or otherwise, to prevent any further increase in the price of tea.
It would be fruitless to attempt to stabilise the world price of tea by price control without rationing.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Lipton
Is the Minister not aware that, despite the recent fall in tea prices at the auctions, various tea, companies have announced that there will be further increases in price at the end of the month? [An Hon. Member: "Not now."] Is the Minister going to do anything about that, and make it quite clear to the price-ringers of the tea trade that he will take resolute action against any attempt to bully or blackmail shopkeepers who try to sell tea below the current inflated prices?
I think that I made it clear that if price control were imposed. 859 it would not produce the result which we all want, namely, lower prices, in the long run, for tea.
§ Mrs. Mann
Is the Minister aware that when his predecessor derationed tea an assurance was given to the House that the price would rise by ½d. per lb., that it has now risen by 4s. 8d. per lb., and are we to take it that there is no appropriate stage at all when this Government will take action to stabilise prices?
I cannot believe my predecessor forecast what would happen as far ahead as now in regard to the price of tea when it was decontrolled. I am quite sure that he did not give the assurance to which the hon. Lady has referred except in the sense he did it from the short-term point of view of what would happen.
§ Mr. Callaghan
If the Government are ready to incur a loss of £20 million on the sale of road service lorries, why not suspend the sales of those lorries and use the £20 million levy to subsidise the price of tea?
§ 25. Mr. Warbey
asked the Minister of Food whether he will appoint an independent committee to inquire into the organisation of tea marketing, packing, and distribution, and to make recommendations with a view to reducing the margin between the cost of production and the price paid by the consumer, by price control or otherwise.
§ Mr. Warbey
In view of the fact that two pungent words from the Prime Minister of Ceylon punctured the tea-market bubble, does not the right hon. Gentleman think that there ought to be an inquiry into this chaotic racket, which gives no benefit to the consumer or to the producer?
I have already given what I consider to be the causes of present prices, and those causes are almost all outside the control of the Government.
Mr. C. I. Orr-Ewing
Would my right hon. Friend agree that the facts given in the "Economist" this week show that no profiteering has taken place in the tea market?