§ 11. Miss Burton
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether, in view of the high price now being charged for potatoes and the fact that greengrocers are complaining that their supplies contain much unsaleable 1429 produce, he will reconsider his decision not to have an inquiry into the distribution of potatoes.
I do not consider that an inquiry into the distribution of potatoes is necessary. But officials of my Department have recently discussed the present potato situation with representatives of the national trade organisations representing wholesalers, retailers and fish fryers.
§ Miss Burton
Is the Minister aware that I have tried very hard to believe him when he said that he would make an inquiry into distribution if given the proof that that was necessary? Does he realise that small greengrocers are today being given quantities of bad potatoes on which they have to pay because the wholesalers are still not subject to the Weights and Measures Act? Does the right hon. Gentleman intend to do nothing about it at all?
I will look at the point which the hon. Lady has raised, but in reply to previous Questions of hers I have reminded her that the committee under the chairmanship of Lord Runciman, which covers all horticultural products, including potatoes, has not yet reported. I am certain that committee will have a great deal to say about the method of distribution of all horticultural products.
§ 12. Miss Burton
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a further statement on the question of the supply of potatoes in the light of imports during the second and third weeks of April.
During the week ended 14th April it is estimated that imports of main-crop potatoes amounted to about 30,000 tons. Returns for the following week are not yet available, but they are probably larger still.
§ Miss Burton
Did the Minister listen to the broadcasts during the weekend? Is he aware how infuriating it is for consumers to be told that there will be plenty of potatoes at the end of May or the beginning of June? Is he further aware that the Marketing Board has said that there is no shortage of potatoes, and no reason for these high prices? Is he going to ignore all these facts?
I cannot accept the statement that the Marketing Board has literally said that, because the figures which it issued of estimated stocks on 1st March—which is the last date for which figures are available—show that there was a substantial fall as compared with the stocks at the same time last year. As I have said before, I believe that the supply position is bound to remain difficult for another six weeks, owing mainly to the light yield last year.
§ Mr. Champion
Is the Minister aware that the supply position has been made more difficult as a result of the banning of exports by Holland? This reduces the amount of potatoes available and will increase competition for those which are available, and prices will inevitably rise again as a result. Will not the Minister take some action in this matter?
I have been in touch with my opposite number—the Minister of Agriculture in Holland—in regard to this matter. I think that the action taken by Holland is due to the fact that potatoes are in very short supply on the Continent, just as they are here.
§ Mr. Nabarro
My right hon. Friend will be aware that substantial quantities of potatoes are available in Worcestershire. Will he give the House an assurance that all last season's crop has now been cleared from the farms?
I rather hope that they have not yet all been cleared from the farms. I am hoping that further supplies will be coming from our own clamps in this country to cover us during the next six weeks. I should be very grateful to my hon. Friend if he would spend all his spare time going round and seeing how many potatoes there are in Worcestershire and if, on each occasion when he returns to this House, he will make sure that he brings a few tons with him.
§ Mr. Collins
Is the Minister aware that no amount of spare-time searching will prove otherwise than that within two weeks there will be no old potatoes in the country? It will be the middle of next August before housewives are able to buy potatoes at less than 6d. per lb.
I think the hon. Member is turning himself into a bit of a prophet. I would certainly not risk going as far as that. I stand by the words I have used, 1431 namely, that for the next six weeks I think that supplies will remain very difficult.
§ Mr. J. Griffiths
If that fact proves to be true and the prices go up, does the Minister intend to change his view about controlled prices?
It is very unlikely that I would change my view. If supplies get any shorter, it will be even more important that any potatoes which are available from any source should come into the market.
§ Mr. Griffiths
If advantage is taken of this scarcity and fabulous profits are made, does not the Minister realise that public interest will require him to take action to control prices?
I rather doubt whether it will in present circumstances, when the most important thing in the interests of consumers is to make sure that any potatoes which are available come into the market to satisfy present demand.
§ Viscount Hinchingbrooke
On a point of order. Reverting to the question which I put to you last week, Mr. Speaker, may I ask whether, as the Government are not involved in the purchase, distribution or sale of potatoes, this Question can be in order—since there is no administrative competence in the Ministry?
§ Mr. Speaker
The Minister has the statistics, and he has given them. He is quite entitled to do so.
§ 23. Lieut.-Colonel Lipton
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food how many weeks' supply of potatoes is now available in this country.
Any calculation of this kind would be unreliable because it would be subject to so many reservations about the weather, changes in the level of demand, the rate of importation, and other factors.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Lipton
Has not the public been given misleading figures about the potato stock position? Is the right hon. Gentleman taking the trouble to satisfy himself about the stocks and whether the position, compared with that of a year ago, justifies more than double the price being charged? Is the right hon. Gentleman not interested to that extent?
The latest available figures on the stock position have already been given in the stock statistics collected by the Potato Marketing Board as at 1st March.
§ 24. Mr. Collins
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what special steps he is taking to ensure that the supply of home-grown potatoes from the 1956 harvest will be sufficient to meet the demand.
Beyond the existing provision of a guaranteed support price for potatoes no special steps would be appropriate.
§ Mr. Collins
Will not the right hon. Gentleman return to the former practice of planning for a supply sufficient for domestic requirements under adverse crop conditions and, then, in a good growing year, using the surplus as stock feed? Would not this be in the interest of farmers and consumers?
The hon. Gentleman is suggesting exactly our objective, which is that in years of normal yield supplies shall be adequate to meet demand at reasonable prices.
§ Sir A. Gomme-Duncan
Would not my right hon. Friend agree that if potatoes do not grow in this country or in any other country not even a Tory Government can produce them?
In general, I would not wish to dissent from what my hon. and gallant Friend has said. There are very few things that a Tory Government cannot do.
§ 27. Mr. Collins
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what representations he has made to the Potato Marketing Board with regard to the high prices now being charged by the Board for ware potatoes.
§ Mr. Collins
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the current wholesale price of 42s. per cwt. compares with 17s. 1433 at this time last year, an increase of 150 per cent., against a 15 per cent. decrease in the crop? Does he not regard it as an exorbitant increase and as evidence of how utterly the plans of himself and of the Potato Marketing Board have failed? Since normal supply and demand have broken down, will he not go back to maximum-price control?