HC Deb 12 February 1973 vol 850 cc954-7
4. Mr. William Price

asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry how many complaints about price rises have been received by his Department since the beginning of the freeze.

The Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs (Sir Geoffrey Howe)

My Department had received 8,800 complaints by the end of last week.

Mr. Price

Is not that a staggering figure? Is it not becoming more and more apparent that the only people who believe that the price freeze is working are Ministers—and nobody is likely to believe them? In how many of the 8,000 instances has action been taken?

Sir G. Howe

The significant fact is that of the inquiries and calls that come to my Department, only one-sixth are complaints. The great majority are inquiries for guidance about how to apply the standstill. A large proportion of the complaints—about half—do not relate to the standstill. Of those which have been or are being investigated, which is about 4,800, almost 3,500 have been found not to be substantiated. Investigations have been completed in about 300 cases. In all those cases the prices have been reduced. That fact in itself underlines the high level of support we are receiving from industry, trade and commerce in the standstill.

Mr. Alan Williams

In the light of election promises, how can Ministers live with their consciences when, because of the increase in meat prices, we read of experiments in the use of synthetic meats for school meals and when we read in the Sunday Mirror yesterday of an increase in the sale of horse meat for human consumption? What pride is left to a pensioner when he is told that the cheap cuts of meat——

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Question relates to complaints on price rises. The hon. Gentleman cannot make a political speech.

Mr. Williams

I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, but I am speaking of the consequences of the very rises in price to which my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. William Price) referred. The point I was trying to make was that meat has become so dear that the pensioner has to ask for scraps for his Sunday lunch. How does the Minister explain this and how does he make it compatible with his so-called promises at election time?

Sir G. Howe

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well the position with regard to food prices, which does not arise from the Question. In any event, pensions have been raised under the present Government and are being raised annually. They have so far been raised by 35 per cent., at least 10 per cent. ahead of the rise in food prices, since we came to office.

Mr. Edwin Wainwright

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman feel that the Government are happy about the success of their measures? Can they tell the housewife that things are as they should be, or are prices still far too high?

Sir G. Howe

The hon. Gentleman knows that with non-food prices the standstill has achieved almost complete success. He also knows that for food prices the position remains exactly as it was when his Government introduced a similar standstill: that there is a limit to the extent to which any Government can regulate the impact of world prices on food prices. What we can do and have done is to take measures to help the lower-paid and other people dependent on social security benefits.

14. Mrs. Sally Oppenheim

asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what steps his Department intends to take with regard to those retailers, manufacturers or vendors who, in breach of the Counter-Inflation (Temporary Provisions) Act, are imposing hidden price rises by providing a reduced quantity for the same price.

Sir G. Howe

We have received very few complaints and none has been substantiated on investigation.

Mrs. Oppenheim

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that if he were to buy a bar of Cadbury's chocolate called "Laughs", the laugh would be on him since he could buy the same bar in a plain wrapper for the same price but weighing more? Is he further aware that it is not uncommon for quantities and weights to fluctuate in those goods for which there is no requirement to give actual weight or quantity, which constitutes a hidden price rise which is almost undetectable to the consumer?

Sir G. Howe

I am not aware of that case but I have examined those which have been drawn to my attention, including one other which my hon. Friend herself has raised with me. We should regard a reduction in quantity not accompanied by a corresponding reduction in price as a contravention of the standstill.

Mr. Carter

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman inquire into the affairs of traders and manufacturers who are conducting massive advertising campaigns telling people to buy their goods at value added tax prices when in many cases, on the basis of the assurance given to the House last year by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the price of these goods should be reduced given a 10 per cent. or lower rate of VAT?

Sir G. Howe

Those cases which have been drawn to my attention have been investigated because the point made by the hon. Gentleman is entirely valid.

Mr. Evelyn King

Will my right hon. and learned Friend also accept that whoever may be responsible for inflation and price rises—and there are many candidates for the blame—it is not in the main the fault of retailers? Would my right hon. and learned Friend prefer, on the contrary, to pay tribute to the 90 per cent. of retailers who have behaved reasonably and moderately? In this context, in my constituency there has been only one complaint about a firm, and that concerned undercharging. I have not had a single complaint of anyone overcharging.

Sir G. Howe

I willingly endorse what my hon. Friend has said. I have already paid tribute to the way manufacturing industry and the retail trades are supporting the provisions of the standstill. They are anxious to discover what they are allowed and not allowed to do and to remedy any matters drawn to their attention which have gone wrong.

Mr. Alan Williams

Some unscrupulous firms are seeking a way round the standstill and the situation will be worse when value added tax is introduced. Unit pricing would be a useful check for housewives. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman introduce legislation to enforce unit pricing'? If he does, we will co-operate in getting it on to the Statute Book as quickly as possible.

Sir G. Howe

Unit pricing has some value in certain cases but if applied across the board it might easily itself add to the costs of commodities to purchasers. The question of unit pricing is already before the House in the Private Member's Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack) and in the form of an amendment to be discussed on the Fair Trading Bill. It will be fully discussed, therefore, in one or other of those forums. Although it has some value, which I have in mind, it cannot be regarded as the panacea in shopping.