HC Deb 01 April 1974 vol 871 cc847-50
1. Mr. Janner

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what steps she proposes to take to keep to a minimum further rises in the cost of bread to consumers.

20. Mr. Tuck

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what steps she proposes to take to arrest the projected rise in the price of bread.

28. Mr. Huckfield

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what is her policy towards preventing further bread price increases.

The Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection (Mrs. Shirley Williams)

As I announced on 20th March, I have made arrangements with the bakers to avoid the increase, which would have occurred on 25th March, in the price of loaves of 14 oz. and more.

Mr. Janner

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and I assure her how welcome her efforts are. Can she indicates how long she reasonably hopes to be able to hold down the price of bread and what further steps may be necessary in that direction in the immediate future?

Mrs. Williams

I understand that there may be further cost increases in the pipeline, but if so these would have to be referred to the Price Commission in the normal way. I would be prepared to hold further discussions on such matters if that were to happen.

Mrs. Oppenheim

As the Prime Minister has designated the right hon. Lady as the focal point on all prices, will she say whether she was associated with am actions of her right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in putting up the prices of electricity, petrol, coal and postage rates, which have more than wiped out any help in subsidies which may have been given to families—not only to the average family, but pensioners and poorer families?

Mrs. Williams

The hon. Lady's supplementary question goes very much wider than the Question. There is a later Question on this matter.

Mr. Tuck

Although the companies concerned have not made a profit on bread, does my right hon. Friend realise that, for example, Associated Foods made nearly £42 million profit in 1973, an increase of 27 per cent., and that Rank-Hovis-McDougall made a profit of nearly £28 million, an increase of nearly 18 per cent.? Is it necessary for the companies to make a profit in each separate department, or can the stronger carry the weaker? If not the latter, is it not about time that the whole thing was brought into public ownership?

Mrs. Williams

My hon. Friend will agree that it is my responsibility to satisfy myself that no exceptional profits are being made on any goods which are subsidised, and I think that this is true about bread. With regard to the whole profits position, this is a matter for the Price Commission. My hon. Friend will be aware that we are considerably strengthening the code under which the Price Commission operates.

Mr. Ridsdale

Is the right hon. Lady aware of the anxiety of many pensioners who live alone that the 14-oz. loaf is too big for them? Will she ensure that the subsidy operates on smaller loaves, since it is to the pensioners that the help should go?

Mrs. Williams

It is my impression that the 14-oz loaf is the normal standard cheapest-for-value loaf and that smaller loaves are almost all of a specialist kind. If the hon. Gentleman will give me information on this matter, I shall be glad to look at it. Bread is a very important item in pensioners' diets and that is one reason why we have subsidised it.

Mr. Channon

Does not the right hon. Lady agree that, apart from the help she has given on bread, the total effect of the Government's measures in this respect has been to raise prices? As she has been designated by the Prime Minister with the focal responsibility of being in charge of prices generally, what will she do about the increase in prices that is the direct result of her right hon. Friend's Budget?

Mrs. Williams

It is rather unfair to Members of Parliament who have tabled Questions much more relevant to this matter later on the Order Paper to try to take that question on bread subsidies.

26. Mr. Edwin Wainwright

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what has been the percentage increase in the price of bread since June 1970 to the latest available date.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

On the basis of information collected for the purposes of the Index of Retail Food Prices, the price of bread rose by about 65 per cent. between 16th June 1970 and 19th February 1974.

Mr. Wainwright

Does my right hon. Friend think it disgraceful that the previous Government should allow bread to increase in such a fashion? Is not bread still one of the basic foods of the lower income group, and especially of old-age pensioners? Will my right hon. Friend do her best to ensure that the price of bread does not rise as it has done in the past? If we are short of money for subsidies, let us have a tax on wealth to make sure that we get it.

Mrs. Williams

I am pleased to be able to give my hon. Friend that assurance.

Mr. Kilfedder

As a loaf costs more in Northern Ireland than in England, even with the subsidy which the right hon. Lady has announced, will she do something to help the people of Northern Ireland, whose wages are lower than the average wages in England?

Mrs. Williams

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that millers in Northern Ireland get exactly the same subsidy as millers in any other part of the United Kingdom. That is the purpose of the bread subsidy. It will be of assistance to low wage earners such as those in parts of Northern Ireland. Under the terms of the bread subsidy we cannot consider the additional cost of transport, which the hon Gentleman will recognise is a different matter.

Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler

By what percentage did the world price of wheat rise during the same period?

Mrs. Williams

I do not have the figure in front of me. I have no doubt that the world price of wheat increased rapidly during that time. I have never denied this. The difference between the present administration and the previous one is that we believe, for that very reason, that those of our people who depend upon bread for a substantial element of their diet should be subsidised.