HC Deb 20 June 1972 vol 839 cc210-4
1 Mrs. Joyce Butler

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what further measures he proposes to take to prevent further increases in the prices of basic family foods such as meat and bread.

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

I am well aware of the difficulties that price increases bring about, particularly for those in the low income groups. It is for this reason that the Government took the action over milk, sugar and potatoes which made an important contribution to the improvement now evident in the Food Index. The increase in the index has declined from an annual rate of 11.1 per cent. in March, 1972, to 6.4 per cent. in May, 1972. I shall continue to take full account of the interests of consumers in reaching all decisions which may affect food prices.

Mrs. Butler

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware how concerned housewives are not only about the current "penny-farthing" increase in bread prices but also about the bakers' forecast of a 40 per cent. increase under the common agricultural policy? What does the right hon. Gentleman intend to do to prevent this and to protect British families from hardship if such a self-raising increase in flour and bread prices results from our Common Market entry?

Mr. Prior

The 40 per cent. increase prophesied by certain sections of the baking industry as the result of our joining the Community is greatly at variance with our figures, which show that the effect of entry is 2 per cent. a year.

Mr. Charles Morrison

Does not the rate of increase in food prices in the last six months show a marked improvement on the previous year and a very considerable improvement on the period immediately before the last election?

Mr. Prior

Yes, Sir, that is absolutely correct. I shall be giving the figures later on in Question Time.

Mr. Peart

Will the Minister refute the charge that workers' wage increases are responsible for the rise in food—especially meat—prices? Will the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, who always blame the workers for inflationary prices, now recognise that their propaganda has been false and wrong?

Mr. Prior

No, certainly not. No one should know better than the right hon. Gentleman that wage increases have had a far bigger effect on food prices as a whole than any other single factor.

Mr. Peart

What about beef?

Mr. Prior

If only the right hon. Gentleman when he was Minister of Agriculture had done more to help beef production, there would not be the present shortage.

Mr. Peart

The Minister is dodging it.

5. Mr. Meacher

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food by how much the retail index of food prices had risen since November, 1969.

Mr. Prior

Between 18th November, 1969, and 16th May, 1972, the latest date for which information is available, the Food Index rose by 26.0 per cent.

Mr. Meacher

Since the food price index has risen by 26 per cent. and the pension by only 20 per cent. since November, 1969, is the Minister aware that pensioners today have 6 per cent. less money in real terms with which to buy food than they had 2½ years ago? Is he further aware that by October 20p of the Government's proposed 75p rise will have been eroded before the pensioners receive it, yet in the Community food costs are expected to rise by 60p per week per pensioner? How can he justify so shamelessly selling the past for pensioners?

Mr. Prior

I cannot suggest how the hon. Gentleman can justify such a remark when he must appreciate that the figures cover at least part of the time when the Labour Government were in office. By next October the pension will have increased by 35 per cent. since November, 1969, which is a far higher in- crease than the increase in the cost of food or the cost of living during that period. It will more than restore the pension to the purchasing power of November, 1969.

Mr. Evelyn King

Is it not a fact that that last supplementary question was an outstanding example of bogus statistical nonsense since it was based, first, on a wrong percentage increase in pension and, secondly, on the supposition that pensioners spend the whole of their money on food, which is another piece of nonsense? Such bogus questions should not be asked.

Mr. Prior

It is also a reflection of the fact that hon. Gentlemen opposite may have forgotten that we have agreed to increase the pension annually, which has never happened previously and is regarded by pensioners as a great step forward.

Mr. Pardoe

Does the Minister agree that within this overall increase in food prices the price of bread during six years of Labour Government went up by three pence on an average loaf and that under the Conservative Government it has increased by four pence? How does he explain this growth rate and his part in it? Has he investigated how far monopolies and competition have affected the position and will he say what percentage of all bread sold here comes from the top three bakery combines?

Mr. Prior

To deal with the last part of the hon. Gentleman's question, the answer is that between 75 and 80 percent. is sold by the three combines. As for the way the increase has come about, it has been partly as a result of increased wheat prices, some of which has been due to the operation of the levy system, I freely admit. But most of the increase has come about because of increases in wages and other costs in the baking industry. I think we should do well to recognise that.

6. Mr. Leslie Huckfield

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what use of computers his Department intends to make in its calculation of future trends in food prices.

Mr. Prior

Computers are used in many aspects of the Ministry's work but have not so far been considered appropriate to the specific area mentioned by the hon. Member.

Mr. Huckfield

Is it not a fact that though price increases have taken place at such a fantastic rate, and because the Minister continues to give such jovial and rosy answers, matters have reached the stage where the only possible excuse that the right hon. Gentleman can use is an error of some kind in a computer programme? He cannot possibly maintain that he is personally making these calculations.

Mr. Prior

I had the feeling that the hon. Gentleman's Question might not be directed entirely to the use of computers and that there might be another meaning behind it. I am able to tell him that computers are used to try to forecast trends. Unfortunately the success of such a process depends very much on the information fed into computers, since that affects what comes out of them.

Mr. Cledwyn Hughes

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that a computer is not necessary to demonstrate that the three-shilling loaf that the Prime Minister predicted under a Labour Government will be achieved under his own?

Mr. Prior

All I can tell the right hon. Gentleman is that during his period in office we had four increases in bread prices, all of them supported by the National Board for Prices and Incomes.

Mr. Spearing

Where is it now?

10. Mr. William Price

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

31. Sir G. Nabarro

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, during the 23 months ended May, 1972, by how much percentage retail food prices have increased.

Mr. Prior

Between 16th June, 1970, and 16th May, 1972, the latest date for which information is available, the Food Index rose by 17.4 per cent.

Mr. Price

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that as a direct result of his policies millions of people are denied the basic commodities of life? Does not the right hon. Gentleman understand that, on the basis of his own recent statements, many of them regard him as probably the finest comic since Groucho Marx? Why does not the right hon. Gentleman pop along to the Prime Minister this afternoon to resign and thereby get off the backs of all of us?

Mr. Prior

The hon. Gentleman does no good by the sort of language he uses to a cause which is worrying a great many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Sir G. Nabarro

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that the curve of price increases has flattened out a great deal during this year? Will my right hon. Friend give us a direct comparison between the rate of increase in prices during the six months ended May, 1972, with the six months ended May, 1970, which is the proper comparison in this context?

Mr. Prior

There is still a long way to go, as we recognise. The figures for which my hon. Friend asks show that in the last six months from November, 1971, to May, 1972, the increase is 3.9 per cent.—

Mr. William Hamilton

And going up.

Mr. Prior

That is still serious enough. But compared with the six months from November, 1969, to May, 1970, which was the six-month period before the election and really was the start of this accelerating process, the figure was 6.8 per cent.

Mr. Buchan

Is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Financial Times index for this month shows something like a 6.6 per cent. increase? The right hon. Gentleman should stop accusing hon. Members on this side of the House of using strong language when referring to basic prices when the right hon. Gentleman alone is responsible for the increase in the three basics of beef, bread and beer in the last month—or was that merely a "prior" commitment that we got before the election?

Mr. Prior

Perhaps the news that I have just given will help right hon. and hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition side to be a little more sober in some of their remarks.

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