HC Deb 15 February 1973 vol 850 cc1419-27
1. Mr. Carter

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

22. Mr. William Price

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

34. Mr. Skinner

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food by how much food prices have increased since June 1970.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Joseph Godber)

Between 16th June 1970 and 12th December 1972, the latest date for which information is available, the food index rose by 24.9 per cent.

Mr. Carter

Is the Minister aware that that is the most appalling answer on this subject ever given in the House of Commons, when set against the Government's policies which restrict wage increases? Is not the Minister aware that until the Government take measures to control food prices their efforts to control inflation will come to naught?

Mr. Godber

I recognise that there is a substantial and serious rise, and I have never sought to deny that. But these rises, as the hon. Gentleman knows, are due to conditions outside the control of the Government. They are due almost entirely to increases in world prices of meat and cereals. That is the reason for them.

Mr. Evelyn King

Will the Minister say by what percentage the cost of living, as opposed to the cost of food, rose? Will he also say by what percentages in the same period earnings and retirement pensions rose?

Mr. Godber

The important comparison is between earnings on the one hand and other rises on the other. Earnings during the same period rose by 34 per cent. and pensions by 35 per cent. These figures, serious as they are, show that the buying capacity of all sections of the community is higher now than it was in 1970.

Mr. William Price

Is it not a strange fact that these figures are more than two months out of date? Is the reason, possibly, that the Minister is afraid to admit to the House that the figure is now well over 25 per cent? Is he proud of the fact that the greatest achievement of this Government is to force some sections of the community to eat horsemeat and grey squirrel, and will he say what other effects the Government's policy will have in the next few months?

Mr. Godber

I have never been afraid to address the House upon any matter—certainly not on this matter. There has been no change in the arrangements about publication of figures; they have been published in exactly the same way as previously. I agree that the next month is bound to see some additional further increase—we all know this, and I have never sought to conceal it from the House.

But when the hon. Gentleman goes on to make extravagant claims about what people are purchasing, the truth is that they are purchasing more good quality food now than they did when the Labour Government were in office.

Mr. Farr

Will my right hon. Friend urge the Chancellor of the Exchequer to remove purchase tax altogether on food products, since this would have the effect of bringing down the index of food prices by no fewer than two points?

Mr. Godber

My hon. Friend will recall that purchase tax and SET will disappear when VAT is introduced—in fact, the total incidence of taxation on food will be less after 1st April than it is now because the effect of the disappearance of SET will be to reduce the imposition of tax on food. Therefore, there will be the beneficial effect of some reduction in total taxation.

Mr. Skinner

Is the Minister aware that the figures show that the biggest upset faced by old-age pensioners this winter is not the dispute involving the gas workers but old people's inability to buy food at prices they can afford? Is it not a strange state of affairs when the Minister urges housewives to boycott beef, chicken and fish and yet beef prices continue at the same level? What does he expect people to eat—frogs legs?

Mr. Godber

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. I have never advised the housewife to boycott any product. [Interruption.] No. I have advised her to judge for herself about which is the best buy. The figures show that the purchase of better food by pensioners has increased and that the situation is better than it was in 1970. The food survey shows that pensioners' purchases of high-protein food are well up on previous levels.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it has been estimated that in 1962 it took a manual worker on the national average wage 49.1 minutes to earn enough to buy 1 lb of best sirloin steak and at the end of 1972 it took him 46.5 minutes?

Mr. Godber

I am grateful for those facts. Both my hon. Friend and the House will be glad to know that since those figures were produced the price of beef has dropped.

7. Mr. Hugh Jenkins

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what percentage rise he expects in the retail price of bacon, pork and sugar in June 1973, as compared with the present price, following the agreements reached in Brussels on 23rd January.

6. Mr. William Hamilton

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food by how much the price of bread and sugar is expected to increase in the next three months.

Mr. Godber

The removal of the subsidy on sugar, which has already been announced, will allow our price to rise but it should still be somewhat below the world level; the total effect will be to raise the retail price by about 1½p for a 2 1b. bag of granulated sugar by 1st July. The price of British bacon will rise nearer to that of Danish bacon as a result of the removal of the bacon stabiliser.

Bread is not affected by the decisions arrived at in Brussels, but bakers are, of course, confronted with a sharp rise in world cereal prices as well as other cost increases.

Mr. Jenkins

Is this not intolerable in a period of wage and price freeze? Will the right hon. Gentleman answer the question about bacon? Is he aware that these rises are of such a character that they are in danger of changing the pattern of consumption in this country and forcing lower income groups to the level and type of food consumption which exists in Italy where they seldom eat meat? Is this what Government policy is leading to?

Mr. Godber

No. The rise in home bacon prices will be substantially less than the rise in imported bacon prices. As with other commodities in short supply, we are subject to the demands of other countries. Danish bacon has risen sharply but British bacon will not rise to the same level. It will obviously rise, with the stabiliser removed.

Mr. Tom King

Is not the rate of exchange absolutely crucial to the question of keeping the cost of food down? Would my right hon. Friend not agree that the greatest contribution that could be made by those concerned to restrict the rise in food prices would be to maintain confidence abroad, to maintain industrial production, and avoid strikes, so that confidence in the pound can be retained at the highest possible level?

Mr. Godber

There is a close relationship between all these things. There has been a shortage in supply because of crop failures. Changes in the relative value of money have undoubtedly had a tremendous effect, which we have felt in recent years.

Mr. Shore

The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that he has deliberately on this occasion put up the prices of sugar and bacon by withdrawing subsidies. Has he chosen to do that or has he done so as a result of the CAP and our membership?

Mr. Godber

If we had fallen in strictly with the rules we should have removed them on 1st February. In fact, we have made arrangements to phase the change. That was felt to be the best thing to do in the interests of the consumer.

12. Mr. R. C. Mitchell

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he will set up a committee of three housewives to investigate the reasons for the increase in fish prices since 1st January 1973.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mrs. Peggy Fenner)

No, Sir.

Mr. Mitchell

Does that answer mean that the hon. Lady does not need to take expert advice on this question? If that is so, will she tell the House the consideration the recent lower prices?

Mrs. Fenner

To set up such a committee would serve no useful purpose. Fish prices change essentially in response to fluctuations in supply, and supplies have on average been running at about 4 per cent. below the catches of a year ago because of reduced catching on our main fishing grounds.

Mr. Kinsey

If my hon. Friend should at any time consider setting up an investigation for the housewife, will she choose housewives who are the wives of North Sea fishermen and see what they have to say? Further, will she tell me why a 3½ per cent. increase was allowed in frozen in-store fish? Was that at the highest point of the crisis, or did it take into consideration the recent lower prices.

Mrs. Fenner

Having said that I did not feel a useful purpose would be served by setting up a group of three housewives I can hardly promise that they will be North Sea fishermen's wives. I am sure that if they were they would know that their husbands' catches have been affected by bad weather, to which inshore fishing is particularly vulnerable at this time of the year.

Mr. Molloy

Is the hon. Lady aware that housewives do not believe that she is any longer on speaking terms with the right hon. Gentleman? Whilst she is engaged in allowing prices to rise——

Mr. Speaker

Order. What has this to do with the committee of three housewives?

Mr. Molloy

The Prime Minister appointed the hon. Lady to look after the interests of the housewife, a position in which she has lamentably failed. Is she having any difficulty with her right hon. Friend? If she is she ought to say so.

Mr. Speaker

That does not arise out of the Question.

13. Mr. Jay

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what has been the percentage rise in the retail price of mutton, lamb, bacon and beef since June 1970.

Mr. Godber

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

Mr. Jay

As the Government's White Paper of July 1971 told us that food prices would rise 2½ per cent. a year if we joined the EEC, and as all these prices are up by 30 per cent., 50 per cent. and 70 per cent. already, is it not clear that the White Paper was just a pack of lies?

Mr. Godber

No, I do not think that it was. Incidentally, the figures quoted in the White Paper were rather similar to those quoted by the previous Government in their White Paper on food price rises. The right hon. Gentleman will be able to see from the table that there have been great increases in meat prices. I have never sought to pretend that that was not so. They have not been in any way related to joining the Community.

The price of beef here and in the Cornmunity—a price which is far above the guide price of the Community—is due not to the common agricultural policy but to the shortage of world supplies.

Mr. Buchan

Having regard to the alarming figures that we shall see in his Written Answer, and reverting to the earlier Question, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that now that we have discovered his and the Prime Minister's method of changing and fiddling the figures, even under his own method the figures show that we are now eating less beef, lamb and mutton in 1972 than we were at the end of rationing in 1954?

Mr. Godber

The answer is "No." I very much resent the charge about fiddling figures. There is no question of fiddling. These are official figures which the Labour Government used. We are merely taking the same figures and using them again. They are the only figures which show the total consumption.

Mr. Buchan

They show a drop.

Mr. Godber

The hon. Gentleman is wrong again. The figures do not show a drop. They show a rise in the total consumption of beef, in the way that I have indicated and as he will see.

Mr. Buchan indicated dissent.

Mr. Godber

It is no use hon. Gentleman's shaking his head. These are the facts, and they are based on the official figures.

Mr. Cant

Will the right hon. Gentleman explain how the food retail index figure will be affected by the most recent recommendation of the Commission that farmers should be paid £3.40 per 100 litres for not producing milk?

Mr. Godber

There has been no decision about not producing milk, and it would be too soon to start talking about the effects. The price of meat is certainly not affected by anything regarding Community regulations. It is due to world shortage and nothing else.

Following is the information: The following table shows the percentage increases in average retail prices of lamb, bacon and beef, as collected for the purposes of the Department of Employment's General Index of Retail Prices, between 16th June 1970 and 15th December 1972, the latest date for which information is available. Comparable information is not available for mutton.
Lamb: home-killed
Loin (with bone) 32.1
Breast* 28.6
Best end of neck 29.6
Shoulder (with bone) 23.0
Leg (with bone) 27.2
Lamb: imported
Loin (with bone) 50.8
Breast* 57.1
Best end of neck 50.0
Shoulder (with bone) 46.5
Leg (with bone) 42.7
Collar* 26.2
Gammon* 26.9
Middle cut, smoked* 26.5
Back, smoked 33.5
Back, unsmoked 32.8
Streaky, smoked 30.0
Beef: home-killed
Chuck 49.1
Sirloin (without bone) 496
Silverside (without bone)* 43.6
Back ribs (with bone)* 52.7
Fore ribs (with bone) 50.7
Brisket (with bone) 66.5
Rump steak* 44.6
Beef: imported chilled
Chuck 56.1
Silverside (without bone)* 42.6
Rump steak* 30.5
* or Scottish equivalent
16. Mrs. Renée Short

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what advice he now has for housewives who find most meat proteins beyond their purse.

Mr. Godber

I do not accept the assumption in the hon. Lady's Question, and I would advise housewives to continue to do what they always have done, namely, exercise their own judgment on the relative value of the different meats available.

Mrs. Short

Does the right hon. Gentleman mean shopping around? Is he aware that the women of this country are fed up with his forays to Brussels and, when he returns, the stories that are put out on radio and television of his all-night sessions, battling about prices, when the result is that prices go up all the time? Prices of beef, pork, lamb, fish, eggs and cheese have all risen. What does he suggest housewives should buy to feed their families?

Mr. Godber

I remind the hon. Lady that, as I have already explained to the House, these rises—[Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Lady does not want to listen to a reply.

Mrs. Short

Come on. Tell them.

Mr. Godber

These rises are due to world conditions.

Mrs. Short

Tell them.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady——

Mrs. Short


Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady must contain herself——

Mrs. Short

They ought to resign.

Mr. Speaker

—or leave the Chamber.

Mrs. Short

Incompetent lot.

Mr. Godber

I hope that the hon. Lady will do me the courtesy of listening to the answer. She has made many charges. As I said, these rises are due to world conditions, as she knows. The fact of Britain's joining the Community has not had an impact of any kind.

The hon. Lady asked what housewives will buy. I remind her that the official figures show that consumption, particularly by old people, has risen—[Interruption.] Clearly the hon. Lady does not wish to hear, but these are the true facts.