HC Deb 17 May 1973 vol 856 cc1682-9
9. Mr. Eadie

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what has been the percentage increase in the price of fresh fruit since June 1970.

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

There is no retail price index for fresh fruit as such but the fruit sub-group of the Index of Retail Food Prices, which also includes canned and dried fruits, showed an increase of 39 per cent. between June 1970 and March 1973.

Mr. Eadie

Does the Parliamentary Secretary agree that other figures have shown that at least up to a few weeks ago there was a 100 per cent. increase in the price of fresh fruit? Does she also agree that it is hardly a compliment to her Ministry and her Government that they should be labelled as the ones responsible for introducing the 5p apple? Can she tell the House whether the fortunes of the British people under the yoke of this Government are that they must face an increase of 50 per cent. a year in the price of fresh fruit?

Mrs. Fenner

I hope that the hon. Member realises that the price of apples increased because of the extremely poor harvest last year. [Interruption.] We have become accustomed to believing that Governments and Oppositions can do most things, but they cannot direct whether there should be a good or bad apple crop. In fairness, the hon. Member should also realise that the figure he quotes includes the cost of dry fruit, which must take account of the Californian crop failure last year—[Interruption.]— which is also something that Oppositions can do nothing about. The price of dried fruit doubled in May of last year.

Mr. Torney

I hope that the Government will be able to do something about the price of oranges. Because Italy is the only producer within the EEC, the EEC insists that our prices should be affected by the high prices of the inefficient Italian orange industry, and therefore we may see not only the 5p apple but the l0p orange. What will the Minister do about that?

Mrs. Fenner

My right hon. Friend will be discussing the question of the CAP in due course. I trust that the prophetic comments about the apple are as inaccurate as those by the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) last week about the bob banana.

Mr. David Stoddart

Will the Parliamentary Secretary tell us where the supplies of cheap, fresh fruit that were promised to us by the supporters of entry into the EEC have gone since we joined? They certainly have not materialised yet. Will she confirm that in order to keep prices up fruit trees are being grubbed out not only on the Continent but in this country?

Mrs. Fenner

They did not have a successful apple harvest on the Continent, either. [Interruption.] However, British horticulturists will continue to grow the sort of apples for which they are famous and which we grow in good quality and quantity in a normal crop year.

10. Mr. William Hamilton

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food how many claims for food price increases are currently under examination by the Price Commission.

Mrs. Fenner

I understand that information on such applications, if and when granted, is being made available by the Price Commission.

Mr. Hamilton

Is the hon. Lady aware that I purchased three bananas at a cost of 16½p, which worked out at 1s. 3d. per banana in old money, and not the shilling that I suggested. I was being unduly modest in my estimate. Will she tell the House exactly what her job is, other than counting the number of price increases? Is she not aware that only yesterday the Price Commission said that the prices of marmalade, cooking fats, oil, jams and other things, including breakfast foods, were going up soon? What is she doing now except to say that there has been a bad harvest in China or Chile, or somewhere else?

Mrs. Fenner

Price increases have to come within the criteria set within phase 2, and that is a matter for the Price Commission. The commodities to which the hon. Member referred and on which the Commission announced its approval yesterday have all been thoroughly scrutinised in order to ensure that they comply with the terms of the Price and Pay Code. I have taken note of the hon. Member's difficulties with bananas. He could certainly do with some help with his shopping. I purchased six bananas for 17p—and I do not have the time to shop around.

Mr. Molloy

Is the hon. Lady aware that the effect of the savage increases in the prices of fresh fruit is compounded by the fact that under this Government for millions of working-class people the saucepan and the frying pan are becoming obsolete?

Mrs. Fenner

The question in hand relates to information and decisions taken by the Price Commission.

18. Mrs. Renée Short

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what was the percentage increase in the cost of food since 6th November 1972 to the latest convenient date.

2. Mr. Meacher

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food by how much food prices have risen since 6th November 1972.

8. Mr. Skinner

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what has been the increase in food prices since 6th November 1972.

24. Mr. Torney

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what increase there has been in retail food prices since 6th November 1972.

Mrs. Fenner

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave on 10th May to the hon. Member for Stirling and Falkirk Burghs (Mr. Ewing).—[Vol. 856, c. 734.]

Mrs. Short

We are used to the hon. Lady's attempts to whitewash this whole disgraceful business. In addition to the increases which my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) has mentioned—which were not included when she last gave a percentage figure—is she aware that when the increases are translated into cash it means that approximately l0p a 1b.—that is two bob a pound—must be put on streaky bacon? Is she further aware that bread prices have risen, and that the prices of ham as well as fruit and vegetables, have risen?

When she says that the Price Commission is considering all applications on their merits, does she know that of the 177 requests for price increases from the large firms, nearly half come from food manufacturing firms? Is she aware that the increases must be allowed if the Commission does not reply to the firm within a month? What is the Commission supposed to be doing? It is a big confidence trick.

Mrs. Fenner

The hon. Lady has mentioned bread prices. To my knowledge the Price Commission has not announced such an increase. The hon. Lady has referred to another list of applications. It would be unwise to assume—

Mrs. Short

Allowed yesterday.

Mrs. Fenner

No, the ones to which the hon. Lady referred were referred to in a Question by the hon. Member for Fife, West, and are not included in the list which she purports to pretend is before the Commission.

Mrs. Short

They were allowed.

Mr. Charles Morrison

Will my hon. Friend say how the influence of seasonal factors on retail food prices this year compared with that of other years?

Mrs. Fenner

This year the seasonal fluctuation was 19.9 per cent. In the winter of 1968–69 it was 16.3 per cent. and in the winter of 1969–70 it was 15 per cent.

Mr. Torney

Is the hon. Lady, by her scant answers to these questions, trying to cover up the fact that during the freeze the increase has been double that which occurred in previous similar periods? That in itself is sufficiently scandalous, but— even worse—is she aware that the Government, by their policy of high food prices and low wages, are inflicting a double hardship on hundreds of thousands of workers earning less than £15 a week? They catch it both ways, with high food prices and low wages.

Mrs. Fenner

I assure the hon. Gentleman that my reply was not intended to be scant. I merely did not wish to repeat the figure of 7.3 per cent. in the food index, which has not changed. Only 1.4 per cent. of that relates to manufactured food. The rest relates to seasonal factors similar to those which the Labour Government had to contend with at the same time of the year. That 1.4 per cent. increase is the lowest increase in that range of food for the last seven years.

Mr. Rost

Will my hon. Friend put these food price rise figures in their proper perspective by telling the House by how much the average weekly bill for food has increased in cash terms and by how much more the average earnings and take-home pay have increased over this period?

Mrs. Fenner

The figures I have quoted are that over the two-and-a-half years the average wage increase was 35 per cent., and pensions increased by 35 per cent. By October, pensions will have increased by 55 per cent. The proportion spent on food is a little less than one-quarter of an average family's income. Of that quarter, only about half relates to seasonal foods which neither the Labour Government nor this Government could control.

Mr. Buchan

Is not the hon. Lady skating on thin ice during the freeze? Is she not aware that in the six months to March this year the price of seasonal foods, on her statistics, has risen by 23.8 per cent.? If she wants to get off the seasonal hook, will she look at the price of non-seasonal foods between October and March? On her figures, those prices have increased by more than the increases which occurred during the same six-monthly periods in 1968–69 and 1969–70 put together? Will she stop deceiving the House?

Mrs. Fenner

I strongly resent the suggestion that I am deceiving the House.

Mr. Raphael Tuck

You are deceiving yourself!

Mrs. Fenner

My valid point is that in this period average wages have increased by 35 per cent., which keeps them well ahead of prices—

Mrs. Renée Short

There are other things besides food—rents and fares.

Mrs. Fenner

The Prime Minister made it clear in a reply that he would consider threshold agreements in stage 3.

21. Mr. Duffy

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food how many applications for price increases from firms he received during stage 1; how many he granted; and how many-price reductions he ordered.

Mrs. Fenner

During stage 1 my right hon. Friend received 1,288 individual applications for price consents. He gave consent for price increases involving 13 products or groups of products sold generally to consumers; 12 intermediate products not sold generally direct to consumers; 66 specialised commodities made by individual manufacturers.

There were 1,430 cases involving food price increases in breach of the requirements of stage 1, but in every case the trader concerned reduced his price voluntarily to the correct level. It was therefore unnecessary for my right hon. Friend to serve any orders under the Counter-Inflation (Temporary Provisions) Act 1972.

Mr. Duffy

Is the Minister aware that most people believe not merely that many prices were increased during stage 1 but that those increases were allowed to remain? In view of her answer, does she not think that her Department was less than vigilant? Has it not acted in the face of public belief and experience?

Mrs. Fenner

My Department followed up and investigated thoroughly every matter laid before it. Every price increase which was unjustified was properly reduced, and there was therefore no need to make an order.

Mr. Robert C. Brown

Is the Minister aware that the whole House welcomed her appointment and waited with bated breath when the Press referred to her as "Prices Peg". Is she further aware that in the six months of the freeze food prices rose nine times as fast as they did in the corresponding six months the year before? In view of that fact, does not she think that she ought to be renamed by the Press, or resign?

Mrs. Fenner

I have often had reason to regret my name, and perhaps this is another reason. The hon. Gentleman referred to the increases and I have rehearsed the arguments very often. They are all on the fresh and imported food side; and on the imported side there are matters over which we do not have control. On the fresh food side, for the very same reasons, the Labour Government could not control the prices.

25. Mr. Leslie Huckfield

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what percentage of food price increases are excluded from the effects of the Counter-Inflation Act because they are classified as imported.

Mrs. Fenner

It is not possible to estimate in advance what percentage of the food price increases during stage 2 of the counter-inflation programme will be on imported products.

Mr. Huckfield

Since the hon. Lady keeps giving answers in this House and in correspondence to the effect that the Government cannot control fresh food and cannot control seasonal food, and since it is well known that a large percentage of food is imported and they cannot have any control over that food either, why do the Government continue the pretence of seeking to control food prices?

Mrs. Fenner

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. We import about half of our total food requirements. It has been made clear throughout the counter-inflation programme that prices of imported goods from overseas suppliers could not be controlled, but the margins of the United Kingdom distributors which affect prices in the shops are controlled.

Mr. Kaufman

Is the hon. Lady aware that in the city of Manchester prices of fresh foods in shops where ordinary working people go to buy their provisions are in many cases higher than in the most expensive shopping areas in London? For example, is she aware that tomatoes are selling at 4p each, or 9½d. in old money, whereas wages are far below the London level? In face of this situation, should not something be done about wages to make sure that my constituents can buy fresh food?

Mrs. Fenner

I cannot entirely accept the hon. Gentleman's comments about the differences in prices between Manchester and other parts of the country. I remind him that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear in an answer on 1st May that he is willing to consider threshold agreements with the CBI and TUC in phase 3.