HC Deb 19 January 1971 vol 809 cc693-7
1. Mr. Pavitt

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what was the rise in the prices of vegetables, fruit, nuts and meat between 1st December and 24th December, 1970.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. James Prior)

No prices were collected for the two dates quoted by the hon. Member, but my information indicates that there was some upward movement in the retail price of some fresh vegetables, meat and apples during December.

Mr. Pavitt

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that that upward movement was very considerable indeed? Cannot something be done to protect the housewife? Must the Government always be on the side of the producers and profiteers? Why cannot something be done to help the ordinary housewife, particularly at seasonal times, and, from the point of view of the coming months, in regard to prices charged between the middle and end of the week?

Mr. Prior

There were the normal seasonal increases in the prices of some fresh fruit and vegetables, but many other foods showed no change in price. As for chickens and turkeys, prices started at a rather high level but came down as Christmas proceeded, which shows that the hon. Gentleman's case is not made out.

4. Mr. Eadie

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what was the increase in food prices from June, 1970 to the latest available date.

17. Mr. Barnes

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the movements in retail food prices which took place during the second half of 1970, for items other than those showing significant seasonal variations.

Mr. Prior

Between 16th June and 15th December, the Food Index rose by 1.8 per cent. and the sub-group covering items other than those which show significant seasonal variations rose by 5.5 per cent.

Mr. Eadie

Do not the right hon. Gentleman and his Government have a bad conscience now in the light of the fact that they made promises to the electorate, which are now proved to have been grossly extravagant, in order to be elected?

Mr. Prior

I never cease to wonder at the Opposition's attitude. In the five years from June, 1965, to June, 1970, the food index rose by 25.9 per cent., whereas in the previous five years, from June, 1959, to June, 1964, it rose by only 11.4 per cent. Surely our policies have been seen to work in the past, just as they will in the future.

Mr. Barnes

Is not the 5.5 per cent. rise in non-seasonal foods, which, after all, form the bulk of purchases for the vast majority of families, very ominous in view a the fact that the Grocer reports that decimalisation may be followed by a trend of rapidly rising prices? Does not the right hon. Gentleman think that the evidence is that there is possibly too much competition in food manufacturing, especially bearing in mind the great bargaining power of the big supermarket groups? How can competition without Government intervention stabilise prices?

Mr. Prior

There is not too much competition in food manufacturing at present. On the whole, the competition there is responsible and is good for the consumer and the housewife. Broadly speaking, the same applies to the big multiple retailers. On decimalisation, I always thought that one of the reasons why we had an early election was so that the Labour Party would not have to face the increased costs when decimalisation took place.

Sir G. Nabarro

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that in all these inflationary tendencies, the present demand for a 9d. post by the Post Office workers and the demand for a huge increase in pay by the power workers will greatly afflict the food-processing industries and hasten inflation? Therefore, will my right hon. Friend resist these extravagant claims?

Mr. Prior

There is a great deal in what my hon. Friend says. Inflation is the biggest single factor in putting up prices.

Mr. Strang

In view of the Government's cynical betrayal of their promises on food prices before the election and the continuing rapid increase in food prices, will the Minister say when the present increases will be blamed on the last Labour Government, or is it now time to blame the trade union movement?

Mr. Prior

Most of us recognise that this is a serious problem for a great many people. I am not certain that either side of the House gains a great deal by bandying about phrases such as "cynical betrayal" and so on. Hon. Gentlemen opposite must look to their own record in these matters before they start accusing us.

Mr. John E. B. Hill

Is it not elementary that the rise in food prices complained of was due to comparatively slow acting factors which first arose under the previous Administration?

Mr. Prior

Yes, Sir. The increases in the price of food in the last year fell nearly all before June. Therefore, I cannot accept responsibility for them. But I know only too well that in the next few months we shall have some considerable increases to take into account.

16. Mr. Peter Mills

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in view of rising food prices, what proposals he has to repeal legislation which adversely affects food prices.

Mr. Prior

None at present, but these matters are kept under review.

Mr. Mills

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Opposition stand guilty of bringing in legislation and taxation which have increased the price of food considerably? Will he take steps, particularly by amending the Transport Act and reducing taxation, to see that this burden is lifted from food?

Mr. Prior

Yes, Sir. The effects of selective employment tax and the Transport Act have been contributory factors in putting up prices in the past few years.

Mr. James Hamilton

Is the Minister prepared to accept the advice given to him by Sir Roy Harrod, writing in the Bankers Magazine, that this country should put a freeze on prices, as this would go a long way towards solving the inflationary tendencies? Will he advise the Cabinet to accept Sir Roy's advice and give up the Industrial Relations Bill?

Mr. Prior

No, Sir.

Mrs. Renée Short

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we on this side of the House and the housewives are bored with hearing his continual excuse about selective employment tax? If he does not like it, why does he not tell the Prime Minister to get rid of it, as he promised in the General Election campaign? Are not the Government guilty of dismantling the machinery which we set up to protect the housewife against rising prices? Why does not he bring that back?

Mr. Prior

I am absolutely guilty of helping to dismantle the machinery which the Opposition set up, because that machinery merely resulted in food prices going up twice as fast as in the last five years of Conservative Government. I am delighted to hear that at last the hon. Lady's constituents are telling her about selective employment tax.

25. Mrs. Doris Fisher

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what is his estimate of the effect of the latest increase in the price of petrol on retail food prices.

Mr. Prior

Any such effect would be negligible: but all cost increases are an impediment to maintaining stable prices.

Mrs. Fisher

Why does not the Minister give instances in which competition between trades and manufacturers is keeping prices down instead of bleating about how the housewife herself should shop around to keep down prices?

Mr. Prior

This is the third increase in petrol prices which we have had this year and the Prices and Incomes Board did not seem to have any more effect on that, either.

Mr. Bob Brown

Will the right hon. Gentleman prevail upon the Chancellor of the Exchequer to take steps to reduce the tax on petrol in order to keep stable the cost of food?

Mr. Prior

I have noted what the hon. Gentleman said.