HC Deb 16 November 1971 vol 826 cc187-92
1. Mr. William Price

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food by what percentage food prices have risen so far this year.

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

Between 19th January and 21st September—the latest date for which information is available—the Food Index rose by 7.2 per cent.

Mr. Price

Is the Minister aware of his growing reputation as a one-man national disaster? Does he not understand the grave damage that the Government's policies, particularly the scandal of food prices, are doing to millions of people? If he cannot or will not make any attempt to redeem the Prime Minister's election promises, why does he not do the honest thing and resign?

Mr. Prior

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in recognising that the two main causes of increased food prices are world prices, over which we have no control, and wage increases, over which we have a great deal of control and which are a larger element than any other.

Mr. Mather

Will my right hon. Friend say what movement there has been in the last few months in the price of food manufactured in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Prior

Since May this year the movement in the food index has been just under 1 per cent. This is a time of the year when seasonal factors operate, but it is a more satisfactory figure.

Mr. Carter

What measures is the Minister contemplating to prevent unjustified price increases arising from metrication? How has he been helped in this matter by his experience with decimalisation?

Mr. Prior

We are a long way off metrication yet, so that question does not arise.

5. Mr. Leslie Huckfield

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what plans he has to monitor increases in prices.

Mr. Prior

There are already satisfactory arrangements for keeping me informed of changes in food prices.

Mr. Huckfield

Is the Minister aware that entry into the E.E.C. will figure quite prominently among the reasons which increasingly will be given for future increases in food prices? How is he to tell the people of this country which prices are quite genuinely caused by E.E.C. entry and which prices are caused by genuine profiteering, or is the Minister not serious about this matter after all?

Mr. Prior

There will be plenty of ways of calculating this assessment without having to have a fresh monitoring system. The Department of Employment's Index of Retail Prices and my own Department's regular surveys on retail prices and voluntary notification of proposed price changes by manufacturers already do this.

Sir G. Nabarro

Is it not a fact that in July the Minister promised the House that he would treat the whole question of food prices—and I quote—"very seriously"? Will he confirm that, as a result of his serious study, food prices have been stabilised since July—which is no doubt the result of his studies and assiduity in this matter?

Mr. Prior

I have already answered the question about the period between May and September. My hon. Friend may like to know that the sub-group covering foods manufactured in the United Kingdom, which accounts for over 40 per cent. of the total weight of the food index, has risen by only 1½ per cent. between May and September this year. This is the lowest rate of increase for over a year.

Mr. Cledwyn Hughes

Is the Minister aware that the House and the country are deeply concerned because he is not monitoring food prices? What notice is given to him by manufacturers of foodstuffs of increases in prices, and to what extent does he probe these increases to find out the precise reason for them?

Mr. Prior

I always thought that the House and the country were far more worried about whether prices went up rather than whether I was monitoring them—that seems to be the most important point. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Government's policy is to reply on competition—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Yes, and competition in both the manufacturing and the retail trade is working far better than it did in the days of the Labour Government.

Mr. Hughes

The Minister has not answered my question. Will he say what notice he receives of increases in food prices and tell the House what he does about it subsequently?

Mr. Prior

Unlike the Labour Party, we do not believe in requiring manufacturers to give us notification of every increase in price, nor do we require them to come to the Ministry and explain, as they used to in the old days by getting together, why it is necessary to have an increase. We believe in competition working.

16. Mr. Skinner

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what has been the increase in food prices since 8th June, 1970.

18. Sir G. Nabarro

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what has been the increase in retail food prices during 16 months ended 31st October, 1971 or nearest convenient date.

Mr. Prior

Between 16th June, 1970 and 21st September, 1971—the latest date for which information is available—the food index rose by 11.3 per cent.

Mr. Skinner

Is the Minister aware that, in answer to a previous Question, he stated that one of the main reasons for rising prices was wage claims which had been negotiated during the past 12 months? With the aid of his super-perfect monitoring device, to which he referred earlier, will he tell us precisely how much of that increase was due to wage claims? Does he realise that this increase in food prices of over 11 per cent. represents in real terms millions of starving old-age pensioners below the poverty line and millions of other people who are unable to exist on the paltry wages about which he talks?

Mr. Prior

The answer to the serious part of the hon. Gentleman's question is, 50 per cent.

Sir G. Nabarro

Though the increase is large over the 16-month period, will my right hon. Friend now confirm that:it recent months he has taken short and faltering steps in my direction—

Hon. Members


Mr. Lipton

God help him!

Sir G. Nabarro

No, not "God help him"—and that prices are now levelling out? Will he be a little optimistic about the future and say that he expects in the near future to be able to stabilise food prices?

Mr. Prior

Judging by my hon. Friend's recent performance, to take faltering steps towards him would be something I should try hard to avoid. Apart from that, there are signs that the food price storm is beginning to subside. The increase in the world price of dairy produce alone since 1970 accounts for 2½ per cent. of the total increase in the food index.

Mr. James Hamilton

Will the Minister concede that this is the biggest hoax which has ever been perpetrated on the people of this country since the General Election in 1970? Will he also recognise his responsibility, as a member of the Cabinet, to take cognisance of old-age pensioners, particularly, and lower-paid workers? Will the Government make a declaration of a change, in the interests of the people of this country?

Mr. Prior

When it comes to talking about hoaxes, we have a lot to learn from right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite.

On the serious part of the question, of course prices are still rising far too rapidly, but, as I have already said, there are signs of improvement.

19. Mr. Thomas Cox

asked the Minister of Agriculture. Fisheries and Food if he will hold discussions with food manufacturers and distributors to restrain price increases.

Mr. Prior

From discussions which I have had with food manufacturers and distributors, it is clear that they are well aware of the importance of price restraint.

Mr. Cox

Is the Minister telling the House that that is the limit of his concern—that he has had discussions? In view of the statement which he made a few minutes ago, that prices are still rising too rapidly, should he not give far greater attention to this matter? Is he aware that, because of his lack of interest, millions of people in this country are seeing their living standards eroded week by week, especially old people, and that it is an insult to tell them, as the Minister does, to shop around? Will he tell the House what kind of action he is taking to restrain price increases?

Mr. Prior

I sympathise particularly with old people who find that prices have risen. The Government have taken action by cutting S.E.T. in half—[Interruption.]—by reductions in purchase tax and by taking firm action to control increases by the nationalised industries. All these things are producing a more satisfactory situation, which right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite should applaud.

Dame Irene Ward

Does my right hon. Friend think that he has a much greater chance of reducing food prices than we have of getting a reduction in electricity, gas, and coal prices, which are of equal importance to old people? Will he just hit the nationalised industries on the head for their increases which are doing untold harm to old people?

Mr. Prior


Hon. Members


Dame Irene Ward

Shut up all of you.

Mr. Prior

My hon. Friend knows that for the year from the end of July onwards the nationalised industries are sticking to the C.B.I. initiative of 5 per cent. This is at considerable cost to the general taxpayer who will have to subsidise them to do so.

Dame Irene Ward

That is not much of an answer.

Hon. Members

Shut up.

Mr. Barnes

Does the Minister agree that, so far from food prices levelling out, as his hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir G. Nabarro) said, non-seasonal foods, which we must consider at this time of year, went up in price by 2½ per cent. between June and September, a rate of increase in a year of 10 per cent? Does the Minister think that he is relying far too heavily on the C.B.I's request to keep increases to 5 per cent. and that he will not hold prices down to anything like that level unless he is prepared to intervene more strongly than he is at the moment?

Mr. Prior

The hon. Gentleman must recognise that the sub-group covering foods manufactured in the United Kingdom, which accounts for over 40 per cent. of the total weight in the food index, rose by only 1½ per cent. between May and September this year and that this is the lowest rate of increase in over a year.