HC Deb 18 July 1972 vol 841 cc368-76
1. Mr. Carter

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food by how much the cost of food has now risen since 18th June, 1970.

50. Mr. Skinner

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

30. Mr. William Price

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food by what percentage food prices have risen since June, 1970.

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

The latest available information was given in my reply to the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. William Price) and my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir G. Nabarro) on 20th June—[Vol. 839, c. 213–14.]

Mr. Carter

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that his answer was deplorable and represented a vicious undermining of the living standards of millions of people? Why has he caused or allowed to be removed from the General Index of Retail Prices imported beef and mutton, both of which have increased in price dramatically and scandalously in recent weeks?

Mr. Prior

In reply to the last part of the supplementary question, there has been absolutely no change in the composition of the Index of Retail Prices.

Mr. Carter

Yes, there has.

Mr. Prior

I have no idea what the hon. Gentleman is trying to get at. In reply to the first part of his supplementary question, it is obvious that he was expecting a different answer from me and was at a loss what to say.

Mr. Price

In view of that disastrous figure, which he does not wish to repeat, how can the Minister justify the Government's attack upon the greedy trade unionists for trying to obtain £20 a week to pay the household bills? Will he deny that food prices are likely to rise by at least another 17 per cent. over the next two years and, while doing so, in view of some of his recent statements, will he reveal one of the biggest mysteries of all time, when he does his own shopping?

Mr. Prior

It would be a great help to the House if the hon. Gentleman would take part in debates in the House instead of coming in just at Question Time and making extravagant remarks which bear no relationship whatever to the facts. If the hon. Gentleman wants a fact, I will give him one—

Mr. Price

The right hon. Gentleman has never given me one yet.

Mr. Prior

In the last six months the Retail Food Price Index has gone up by 3.9 per cent. compared with 6.8 per cent. in the last six months' lifetime of the Labour Government.

Mr. Ridsdale

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, whilst one is disturbed by the rise in the price of food, the rise in the price of cooking it is even greater because of the increase in coal prices which, if the Government are unable to subsidise electricity, will mean that the price of electricity will go up by 16 per cent.?

Mr. Prior

My hon. Friend is right always to worry about the rise in food prices or any other prices. We on this side of the House are doing everything we can to contain inflation and to keep prices steady, but we also have to bear in mind the rise in the standard of living, which I am pleased to say is rising at about double the rate at which it rose during the previous Administration.

Mr. Skinner

Is it the time of the year when we start to talk about peaches again? On the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Carter) about deletions from the retail prices index, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I have a copy from the Department which states that imported beef, sirloin without bone, back ribs with bone, brisket with bone and fore-ribs with bone have all been excluded from the index? Will he say whether that is a gigantic fiddle?

Mr. Prior

The hon. Gentleman should know—and his right hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) will be able to tell him if he does not know—that under the foot and mouth regulations made some time ago all meat imported from places such as the Argentine now has to be boneless. It does not require anyone with much brain, except perhaps the hon. Gentleman, to realise that it is no longer necessary to include it in the food prices index.

Mr. Rost

Since hon. Members opposite are so keen to blame the Government for rising world food prices, will the Labour Party now congratulate my hon. Friend on the fact that here and there world food prices are coming down?

Mr. Prior

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend says, but I have noticed that the Opposition are interested only in prices that go up.

Mr. Peart

The right hon. Gentleman should not be arrogant in his replies to hon. Members. He knows full well that under the Conservative Administration prices have rocketed, and this means that the lower income group is suffering hardship—[Interruption.] This is no laughing matter. Many old-age pensioners and people on small pensions face considerable hardship because of high food prices, which will rise even more when we enter the Community.

Mr. Prior

I am not the least bit arrogant about the rise in food prices, and the right hon. Gentleman knows it. I fully appreciate the fact that old-age pensioners and those who live on fixed incomes have to bear the brunt of increased food prices, but the Government have taken action to bring them down. The rate at which they are now rising is far slower than that in the last year of the Labour Government.

2. Mr. Ashley

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what further steps he proposes to take to reduce the rise in food prices.

Mr. Prior

I would refer the hon. Member to the reply I gave on 20th June to the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Joyce Butler)—[Vol. 839, c. 210–11.]

Mr. Ashley

Will the Minister start living with the times, because he will see that my Question asked about the further steps he proposes to take, not about the steps he purported to take a month ago? Since it is obvious that the Government could lose the General Election on the issue of food prices alone, does he have any contingency plans for the direct control of food prices?

Mr. Prior

No, I have no plans for the direct control of food prices. This was not even introduced during the period of office of the Labour Government. Furthermore, I do not believe that it would work, particularly in view of the situation of world food supplies. To try to put controls on food supplies over which, in fact, we have no control would result merely in rationing having to be introduced again. The best thing we can do to help in terms of food prices is to continue with existing policies.

Mr. Brewis

What products recently have gone down in price, such as butter, margarine and jam?

Mr. Prior

The best example of a food which has gone down in price is butter, which during the last few weeks has fallen in price by about 9p a lb. Eggs also are considerably cheaper than they have been for years—[Hon. Members: "Oh."] It is extraordinary how hon. Members opposite hate to hear about falling prices.

12. Mr. Hardy

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what has been the average consumption per head of beef, fish and beer in the last month for which figures are available; what difference this represents since the same month two years ago; and by what proportion the price of these foods has increased in this period.

Mr. Prior

Figures for individual months are not available but I will circulate in the Official Report figures for the last quarters of 1969 and 1971.

Fourth quarter 1969 Fourth quarter 1971 Percentage change
p p
Beef: Home-killed
Chuck 31.0 37.0 +19.4
Sirloin (without bone) 42.8 53.3 +24.5
Silverside (without bone) 39.6 48.6 +22.7
Back ribs (with bone) 27.3 33.9 +24.2
Fore ribs (with bone) 26.8 33.1 +23.5
Brisket (with bone) 17.1 22.3 +30.4
Rump steak 54.0 67.3 +24.6
Mr. Hardy

Has the Minister perceived, and is he not concerned, that a reduction in the consumption of certain important protein foods has now commenced? Is that not a direct result of Government policy?

Mr. Prior

There has been a fall in the amounts of beef and fish available for sale. This is largely because of world factors beyond our control. However, all available supplies have been taken up and the Government, through their agricultural policy, are doing all they can to increase the production of beef and dairy products.

Mr. James Johnson

Concerning the important matter of fish, which is often a substitute for beef and other meats, will the Minister comment on the price of fish and chips, for example, if we are denied access to fishing off the Icelandic Banks after September?

Mr. Prior

This is the kind of world factor which pushes up prices. Our exclusion from a 50-mile area round Iceland would have a serious effect on fish prices as well as on unemployment in certain areas. This is a factor very much in the Government's mind in their attitude towards the Icelandic dispute.

Following is the information:

(lb. per head per annum)
1969 1971
Beef and Veal 12.1 11.9
Fish, fresh, frozen and cured (wet fillet equivalent) 4.1 3.2
Beer (pints per head per annum) 44.2 46.7

As far as prices are concerned the Food Index figures for home-killed beef and fresh fish show the following increases over the period:

Fourth quarter 1969 Fourth quarter 1971 Percentage change
p p
Cod fillets 19.2 29.5 +53.6
Haddock fillets 23.2 30.5 +31.5
Haddock smoked 20.9 27.9 +33.5
Plaice fillets 32.2 38.0 +18.0
Halibut cuts 43.4 52.7 +21.4
Herrings 10.4 14.6 +40.4
Kippers (with bone) 14.2 19.3 +35.9

The price of beer in public bars rose by about 23 per cent. in the same period.

14. Mr. James Lamond

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will give the percentage increase in the retail prices of bread, butter and beef since June, 1970.

29. Mr. Dempsey

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food by how much the retail prices of beef, butter and cheese have now increased since June, 1970.

Mr. Prior

As the answer contains a number of figures I will, with permission, circulate the information in the Official Report.

Mr. Lamond

Is the Minister aware that, without seeing these figures, we know sufficient to realise that when the Government are kicked out by the electorate in about 18 months, one of their great successes will have been to raise the price of a roast beef sandwich almost to the price of a meal at the Savoy when they took office in 1970?

Mr. Prior

Nothing damages a case more than to exaggerate in the way in which the hon. Gentleman has exaggerated. I recognised, probably better than most hon. Members, the serious rise in food prices over the last few years. But for all that, the position has improved. Hon. Gentlemen opposite should at least give credit for the fact that the position is now a good deal better than it was two years ago or one year ago.

Mr. Dempsey

Is the Minister aware that he published figures only three weeks ago indicating that essential foodstuffs had increased substantially in price between June, 1970, and April this year? Does he agree that they are still increasing? Will he spell out the precise steps he proposes to take to prevent them from increasing any further when we enter the Common Market?

Mr. Prior

We have accepted that entry into the Common Market is bound to lead to some increase in the price of food. We have never disguised that fact. The hon. Gentleman must take into account the rise in the standard of living which is going on now and which will take place when we join the Community. After all, it is the standard of living more than the cost of living which counts.

Mr. Kinsey

Will my right hon. Friend explain further the reason for the decrease in the price of butter so that the housewife will understand? Will he explain not only this sudden fluctuation, but what he will do for the future to keep the price steady?

Mr. Prior

The reason the price of butter increased so rapidly was a world shortage. World supplies are now more plentiful, among other reasons because we are producing more butter at home; and the price has fallen by £120 a ton in the last three months. I see no reason why it should not stabilise at about the present level for the rest of the year.

Following is the information:

The following table shows the percentage increases between 16th June, 1970, and 16th May, 1972, the latest date for which information is available, in the average prices collected for the purposes of the Index of Retail Food Prices.

Item Percentage increase in average price
Beef: Home-killed
Chuck 24.8
Sirloin (without bone) 25.7
Silverside (without bone)* 23.6
Back ribs (with bone)* 27.6
Fore ribs (with bone) 26.1
Brisket (with bone) 30.8
Rump steak* 23.8
Beef: Imported, chilled
Chuck 34.5
Silverside (without bone)* 26.0
Rump steak* 19.9
15. Mr. William Hamilton

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what has been the percentage rise in the Food Index in each six months period from mid-May to mid-November in each of the last three years; and what has been the increase since November, 1971 to date.

Mr. Prior

As the answer contains a number of figures I will, with permission, circulate the information in the Official Report.

Mr. Hamilton

Since the right hon. Gentleman refuses to give the figures, I will give them. Am I correct in repeating the answer to my Question on 18th January that from mid-May to mid-November, 1969, the Food Price Index went up by 0.3 per cent., from mid-May to mid-November, 1970, by 1 per cent., and from mid-May to mid-November, 1971, by 2.4 per cent.; in other words, 800 per cent. more in the six months from mid-May to mid-November, 1971, compared with 0.3 per cent. in the last six months of the Labour Government? Will he also confirm that there are concealed price increases, as some of his hon. Friends will tell him, by reductions in the weights and qualities of goods, although the prices appear to remain stable?

Mr. Prior

The hon. Gentleman has shown only too well the acceleration in food prices that was going on before the election and that has gone on since. That is exactly what we are at last beginning to get under control. Therefore, I think the hon. Gentleman should be pleased that I did not give the figures.

Following is the information:

The percentage changes in the Food Index in each six months period from mid-May to mid-November in each of the last three years, and since November, 1971, to date, were as follows:

mid-May,1969 1969—mid-November, +0.3
mid-May,1970 1970—mid-November, +1.0
mid-May,1971 1971—mid-November, +2.4
mid-November,1972 1971—mid-May, +3.9
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