HC Deb 30 May 1960 vol 624 cc973-4
11. Mr. Darling

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will appoint a suitable committee to inquire into the costs of merchanting and retailing farm produce.

Mr. John Hare

A good many commodities, e.g. milk, eggs, potatoes, pigs, fruit and vegetables are covered by marketing boards and other organisations also concerned with marketing efficiency. Most of the remainder undergo substantial processing before reaching the consumer. Our consumer food prices are amongst the lowest in the world, and I am not convinced of the need for a general inquiry.

Mr. Darling

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that millions of consumers in this country are very dissatisfied with the difference between the price of farm produce at the farm and the price they have to pay in the shops? Is he also aware that the latest request for an inquiry along these lines was made by the chairman of the Farmers' and Smallholders' Association? As he obviously intends to ignore that request, are we to assume that he has a closed shop in the Ministry and listens only to representations from the National Farmers' Union?

Mr. Hare

I do not accept the latter part of the question. One has to look at this broadly and fairly. Nobody in the House can deny that our food prices are probably lower than those in practically every other industrial country in the world. What is more, the price of food has been kept pretty well steady for the last two years, and this is more than has ever happened before.

Mrs. Slater

Surely the right hon. Gentleman realises that that is not the point. Is it not a fact that if prices to the consumer can be reduced by good and wise marketing, then that ought to be introduced, in spite of the fact that our prices are lower than those of other countries? Does not the Minister also take into account the fact that we pay very large subsidies to some of these people in order that they shall supply us with these goods?

Mr. Hare

We must keep this in proportion. The farmers get the direct benefit of the subsidies. [HON. MEMBERS: "No"] The consumer benefits through increased supplies at lower prices. The best preventive of excessive margins is our free marketing, under which traders have to compete with one another and in which farmers' and consumers' organisations can also compete. I remind the hon. Lady that only two years ago we had an investigation into horticultural marketing and the Runciman Committee came to the conclusion that it did not think that the allegations against the distributive side of the horticultural industry were proved.

Mr. Willey

Surely the right hon. Gentleman agrees that there has been an extraordinary increase in distributive margins on food in the past five or six years? Will he consult his right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour to see that the figures for the individual commodities are published so that we can make up our own minds about them?

Mr. Hare

I am in constant touch with my colleague on this subject. I have nothing further to add to what I have said.