HC Deb 23 March 1971 vol 814 cc234-41
12. Mr. Carter

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food by how much the food bill of both a single retirement pensioner and a married retirement pensioner couple has increased over the past six months.

Mr. Prior

The Department of Employment's Retail Price Index for a single pensioner household showed an increase of 1.8 per cent. for food between the second and fourth quarters of 1970; and 1.9 per cent. for a two person pensioner household.

Mr. Carter

That hardly answers the Question. Does not the Minister accept that, translated into real pounds, shillings and pence, this means a tremendous increase in the cost of living for old-age pensioners—a higher increase than in recent years? Coupled with the announcements made by the Minister in his review last week, this will amount in total to a drastic falling off in the living standards of old-age pensioners. Will he, therefore, urge his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to increase dramatically the old-age pension in his coming Budget?

Mr. Prior

I am well aware that inflation bears most heavily on pensioners and others on fixed incomes, and I am continually stressing the urgent need for the country to get this under control. That is the complete answer to the hon. Member.

Sir G. Nabarro

Would not my right hon. Friend admit at once that the increases that he has just denoted for food prices for old-age pensioners represent less than 2p in the pound, and are about one quarter of the advances which have taken place in nationalised industries? In view of all the increases put together, will he step along the corridor to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and ask for a 10s. increase for the single old-age pensioner and 15s. for the two pensioner household to take effect at the earliest moment?

Mr. Prior

As my hon. Friend knows only too well, pension matters are for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services, not for me.

Mr. Speaker

The longer the supplementary questions, the fewer I can call.

Sir G. Nabarro

Hear, hear.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I was not approving the hon. Member's supplementary question.

13. Mr. Barnes

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what movement there was in the retail price of food items other than those which show significant seasonal variations from the middle of December, 1970, to the latest available date, according to the Index of Retail Prices.

Mr. Prior

The sub-group of the Food Index which covers non-seasonal foods rose by 1.4 per cent. between 15th December, 1970, and 16th February, 1971, the latest date for which figures are available.

Mr. Barnes

Is the Minister aware that it does not give us any pleasure to go on about these figures every time he answers Questions, but the figures are bad news for the housewife? The figure which he has just mentioned means that non-seasonal foods will have gone up 7 per cent. since June. Will he clarify the words of the Prime Minister last June? I will not quote them, because I am not trying to make a party political point. Were the people of this country wrong to interpret those words as meaning that there would be Government action to reduce the rate of price increases?

Mr. Prior

The whole time there is Government action to reduce the rate of increase. I will respond to the hon. Gentleman who does not want to make a party point by saying that in two out of the last three years of Labour Government the increase in non-seasonal food prices between December and February was greater than it has been this year.

Mr. Peter Mills

Will my right hon. Friend convey to the hon. Member for Brentford and Chiswick (Mr. Barnes) that this country still has the cheapest food in Europe, that a weak agricultural industry would mean that we were at the mercy of imported food and that the real reason for the increase in the cost of food is the legislation introduced by the Labour Government?

Mr. Prior

That is very much to the point. As I said two months ago, we know that we have a difficult period ahead of us, but, as the Prime Minister has rightly said, we are now beginning to get on top of inflation, and that is the best thing we can do.

Mr. Cant

May I help the right hon. Gentleman by asking him whether he is aware, on the basis of evidence in respectable newspapers, that there appears to be a serious racket in the prices of retail bacon and pork'? Will he reduce the cost of living, especially for poorer people, by investigating this? For old people, and others, there is nothing tastier than a bit of nice cheap bacon for breakfast.

Mr. Prior

The hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that the price of bacon is cheaper now than it has been for three years.

Hon. Members

Danish bacon.

Mr. Cledwyn Hughes

Is the Minister aware that the way in which at Question Time after Question Time he blusters through his Questions is not appreciated by the country as a whole? Has he estimated the likely increase in food prices during 1971? Is he aware that some experts say that the increase may be as high as 10 per cent.? Whilst the House realises that there are some factors beyond his control for which he cannot be blamed, there are other matters which are well within his control. Will he now do something about it? Will he, for example, call a meeting of the Food Manufacturers Federation to discuss whether the manufacturers can absorb some of their costs in their profits and so stabilise the price of food?

Mr. Prior

No, Sir. I am well aware of the difficulties of this subject, and I want to be as helpful as I can to the House, but I do not think that trying to make an estimate for the rest of this year would be helpful.

14. Mr. Barnes

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what movement there has been in the price of the 100 faster-selling branded foods covered by his Department's survey of retail prices between the last survey before decimalisation day and the latest available survey.

Mr. Prior

In the four weeks between 9th February and 9th March about 92 per cent. of the price quotations for the faster-selling branded foods covered by this survey were unchanged or correctly converted to the decimal equivalents of their former £.s.d. prices. Of the remainder, just over 4 per cent, were dearer and over 3 per cent. were cheaper. These changes mainly reflected movements in manufacturers' prices, wholesale market prices or the incidence of special promotions.

Mr. Barnes

I agree that the changeover to decimal currency went fairly satisfactorily, except, perhaps, in the greengrocery trade where there is, I think, some evidence of rounding up, but is the Minis- ter aware that the Financial Times grocery index indicates that the upward trend, which was very marked between December and January, is still continuing between February and March? To come back to the point which I put previously, does not the right hon. Gentleman think that the Government's incomes policy, such as it is, would have a much better response if the action which the Minister says the Government are taking over food prices were more evident?

Mr. Prior

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman now says that the situation as regards decimalisation was comparatively satisfactory, and I hope that his hon. Friends will support him in that, since it was not what they said on the last occasion when we answered Questions on the matter.

The Government's incomes policy is now seen to be having results, and this, in the end, is the best indication that price rises will stabilise.

15. Mr. Skinner

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what has been the percentage increase in the price of food as measured by the retail price index for the nine months between 18th June and 18th March.

Mr. Prior

Between 16th June, 1970, and 16th February, 1971, the latest date for which information is available, the Index of Retail Food Prices rose by 4.2 per cent.

Mr. Skinner

Is the Minister aware that, bad as those figures are, the housewife is in for a much heftier increase as a result of the Price Review last week, and will he now publish, out of the thousands of prices which go into the compilation of the retail price index, a list of the prices which have been cut at a stroke since 18th June, and also a list of the shops at which the housewife can buy those goods?

Mr. Prior

What the hon. Gentleman presents as facts are not true. The increase resulting from the Price Review determination last week consists of an increase in the price of milk which is equivalent to ¾ per cent. on the cost of food index, and once the levy schemes start to operate, there will be an additional ½ per cent. over the following 12 months. That is the sum total of the increase stemming from the Price Review.

Mr. Wiggin

Could my right hon. Friend say what relation the retail food price index bears to the total cost of living index?

Mr. Prior

The retail food index comprises one quarter of the costs covered by the cost of living index.

Mr. Frank Allaun

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that greengrocers throughout the country have just raised the price of cauliflowers by 10 old pence, an increase of 50 per cent., following the Government's levy just imposed? What will he do to restore the former prices?

Mr. Prior

Apart from the fact that I do not for a moment believe that to be true throughout the country as a whole—

Mr. Allaun

My wife has just paid that.

Mr. Prior

—there are ample supplies of fresh vegetables of different varieties available at the moment, and I suggest that the housewife takes advantage of them.

20. Mr. Kinsey

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what is his estimate of the effect the Farm Price Review will have on prices in the shops.

23. Mr. Deakins

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what is his estimate of the effect on retail food prices of the recent Price Review determinations.

Mr. Prior

The price of milk is to be increased by ½p per pint in July and will add about ¾ per cent. to the Food Index. The only other determinations which can effect retail prices are those for sugar beet and potatoes but these should not in themselves lead to any increase in retail prices.

Mr. Kinsey

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. The housewife is interested in the effect on her overall family budget. How do the determinations affect the direct price to the customer and the taxation price to the customer?

Mr. Prior

Far from being the soak-the-housewife price review that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Anglesey (Mr. Cledwyn Hughes) talked about, the last Price Review compares very well with some of those conducted when the Opposition were in power. The housewife will bear 44 per cent. of the increase this year, compared with 48 per cent. in the right hon. Gentleman's last Price Review and an average of nearly 50 per cent. over the past six years.

Mr. Deakins

Is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that, in addition to the £60 million-£70 million extra will fall on the housewife as a direct result of this year's Price Review determinations, there will almost certainly be extra costs as a result of the introduction of import levies on meat, and that in the event of world cereal prices falling in the coming year, which is extremely likely, the raised minimum import prices for cereals will also lead to higher prices for bread and flour-based products than would have been the case?

Mr. Prior

Most of that question was hypothetical. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not try to put unnecessary fear into housewives that prices will go up.

21. Mr. William Hamilton

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will publish a White Paper showing the effect of the policy of encouraging competition in the stabilisation of food prices during the last nine months.

Mr. Prior

No, Sir. I would refer the hon. Member to the reply I gave the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Bagier) on 8th December.—[Vol. 808, c. 59.]

Mr. Hamilton

That answer is not surprising, because the White Paper would be a blank sheet. Can the right hon. Gentleman comment on the Grocer's estimate that since the General Election there have been 5,856 price increases? If he is not prepared to publish a White Paper on price reductions at a stroke, will he consider publishing the items to which the Grocer refers?

Mr. Prior

No, Sir.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

Will my right hon. Friend publish a White Paper showing the difference between the rise in the retail prices of groceries during the six years when the Opposition were in Government, when they went up astronomically, and the price increases since then, which have largely been due to the Opposition's mismanagement?

Mr. Prior

As Labour hon. Members know, and hate to be reminded, in their five years in office prices went up by 25 per cent., whereas in the previous five years they went up by 11 per cent.

24. Mr. Eadie

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will now consider holding a specific investigation into increases in food prices as a result of decimalisation, in the light of information received since 15th February.

Mr. Prior

No, Sir. The changeover to decimal currency went smoothly.

Mr. Eadie

Can the right hon. Gentleman give the House any idea how he reached that conclusion? For example, how does he canvass the housewife, who, according to quite substantial Press reports, doubts his statement very much?

Mr. Prior

It happens that I think I am better informed about public opinion than the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Barnes

Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on the change-over to decimalisation in so far as it affected the greengrocery trade, which was a specific point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Molloy) and not answered by the right hon. Gentleman?

Mr. Prior

There were reports in the Financial Times article, which I think is the one the hon. Gentleman saw, that greengrocers had tended to even up rather than to pull down. This I regret, but I think that on the whole decimalisation went extremely smoothly and was a great credit to customers and shopkeepers alike.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

Whilst I agree with my right hon. Friend, does he not agree that it could have gone still more smoothly if traders had made more use of the new half pence and had made use of the old sixpence?

Mr. Prior

I think that that is perfectly true.

Forward to