HC Deb 20 December 1973 vol 866 cc1587-90
7. Mr. Jay

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he will remove all import duties or levies on food imported into the United Kingdom as long as retail food prices are above the levels of June 1970.

25. Mr. McBride

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he will now discontinue all import levies or duties on food imported into the United Kingdom.

Mr. Godber

No, Sir.

Mr. Jay

As the removal of these taxes, which are the main cause of high food prices, would do a great deal to ease both the economic and the industrial situation in this country, may I ask why the right hon. Gentleman will not remove them?

Mr. Godber

It is a pity that the right hon. Gentleman should persist in distorting the truth of the matter. He is wrong to try to mislead people in the way that he does. The total impact, with the increases on 1st January, amounts to less than 1 per cent. of consumers' expenditure on food. That is the true position.

Mr. Boscawen

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one reason for lower food production, particularly of dairy produce, is the disgraceful way that dairy farmers in my constituency were treated by the Labour Government? Will he bear this in mind in the review that he is undertaking at present?

Mr. Godber

I agree that the Labour Government treated all farmers disgracefully. I should not differentiate between dairy and other farmers. Since we came back into office we have been able to restore production, and the upward growth of production at home is materially assisting us at this time.

Mr. McBride

Is the Minister aware that the Tory Government have added to the staggeringly high price increases of food since 1970 by 50p in the pound by passing the Import Duties (General) (No. 8) Order? Is he aware that this will make the bacon-and-egg breakfast and midday meal for many of our people recede further and unhappily into the mists of memory? Is he also aware that his refusal to discontinue all import levies or duties on food means that the British housewife will not believe him when he talks about prices? Lastly, will he dredge up whatever vestiges of honesty remain in him and tell the British people the truth about prices and stop wriggling and twisting and showing his incompetence when Britain labours under a staggeringly high food price burden?

Mr. Godber

I have never wriggled or twisted, and I have always told the truth in this House. I have already given the figures for which we were asked regarding the actual increase in food prices. I shall now give the increase in earnings and pensions, which I think are strictly relevant. Against a food price increase of 46.2 per cent., there was an earnings increase of 48.7 per cent. and a pensions increase of 55 per cent. The true comparison is between the earnings index of 48.7 per cent. and the real cost of living as a whole, which is in fact only 33.5 per cent. That is the true situation. If what the hon. Gentleman says about housewives having such a difficult time is true, I must point out that they were having a much more difficult time when the Labour Government were in office. These figures prove it.

Mr. Shore

We have had the first instalment this year of harmonisation towards the CAP, on 1st January we are to have the first taxes on a lot of Commonwealth imported food, and in April, if not earlier, we shall have the second instalment of our harmonisation towards the CAP. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether he sought to postpone the increases which are to come into effect on 1st January under the CET and whether he resisted any proposal to introduce the system of levies as well as taxes on imported lamb?

Mr. Godber

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the degrees with which these measures have been introduced. Last month I put a proposal before the Council of Ministers suggesting that in the circumstances facing the whole Community it would be sensible to make some reduction in the Common External Tariff on food and on other items. This was not agreed, although there was agreement to consider whether something along those lines could be done.

I did not seek any change in the transitional arrangements because these were agreed, and I did not think it right for us to re-open an agreement that we had signed on accession. But I repeat that the effect of the January increase is about ¼ per cent.

Mr. Shore

What about the levies on lamb?

Mr. Godber

I have included those in my global reply. I did not ask for changes, because these represented one of the factors relating to the acclimatisation of our system with the Community which had been agreed. Therefore, I did not think it was right to ask for any changes. I think that it will have very little impact on the cost of food.

19. Mr. Handing

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he will now remove all import duties or levies on butter and cheese imported into the United Kingdom from New Zealand, Australia and Canada.

26. Mr. Denzil Davies

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether, in pursuance of the counter-inflationary policy, he will now remove the import levies now charged on butter and cheese from outside the EEC.

The Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Anthony Stodart)

I would refer the hon. Members to the reply I gave on 22nd November to the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) and the hon. Member for Feltham (Mr. Russell Kerr).—[Vol. 864, Col. 464.]

Mr. Handing

Will the hon. Gentleman explain the contradiction between the claim of his right hon. Friend that all food price increases are due to increases in world prices and the fact that the Government are bent on imposing taxes on imported food from the Commonwealth which increase the price? Who is right—the Minister or his right hon Friend? Or are they both wrong?

Mr. Stodart

I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that despite the levy butter is 7p a pound cheaper than it was early in 1972, and the price of cheese has remained almost constant, again despite the levies.

Mr. Davies

Is the Minister aware that there are miners in my constituency who find it difficult to comprehend a situation where they are being denied a just wage on the ground that it would be inflationary, while the Government deliberately put up the price of food by imposing taxes? Will the Government now stop lecturing the miners and put their own house in order?

Mr. Stodart

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will explain to me how he can say that we have put up the price of food when, as I have said, butter has come down in price and cheese has remained level.