HC Deb 31 January 1974 vol 868 cc603-7
11. Mr. Carter

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food by how much the cost of food has risen since 18tb June 1970.

12. Mr. Thomas Cox

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

13. Mr. Molloy

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what is the percentage of food price increases since June 1970.

22. Mr. Ashton

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

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

Between 16th June 1970 and 11th December 1973, the latest date for which information is available, the food index rose by 48.7 per cent.

Mr. Carter

Is the Minister aware that that increase has had a devastating effect upon everybody and, in particular, upon old-age pensioners? Is she aware that in 1970 old-age pensioners spent, per head, 223 p per week on food and that in 1973 the figure had risen to 288p per head? Further, is she aware that if that expenditure had kept pace with costs it would have been 334p per [...]ead per week? As these figures are extracted from those published by her Department, is there not conclusive evidence that under this Government old-age pensioners are eating less than they have ever eaten before?

Mrs. Fenner

No, that is not so. As the hon. Gentleman knows, pensions have increased per week for single pensioners by £2.75p and for married pensioners by £4.40p. Our figures show that pensioners' food expenditure is up by 57p per head per week.

Mr. Farr

Is my hon. Friend aware that some more reasonably priced meals can still be obtained in London—at, for instance, the White House Restaurant, Regents Park, which is frequented by the executive of the National Union of Mine-workers, where large and lasting expense accounts for drinks can be run up?

Mrs. Fenner

I know that my hon. Friend will have noticed from that bill that the men's priorities were placed roughly in the same order as their normal spending on alcohol and food. Spending on alcohol over the past three years has increased by 37.8 per cent. and upon food by only 23.9 per cent.

Mr. Cox

Perhaps the hon. Lady will come back to the real question which she is being asked. Does she agree that the staggering 48 per cent. increase in food prices which she has announced today is now outdated because it is now over 50 per cent.? Is the hon. Lady aware that many of the traditional and popular meals which British people enjoyed and could afford to buy, such as fish and chips and Irish stews, are now out of the price range of many people? Conservative Members may laugh; possibly they have never eaten such meals. They should realise that many people used to eat them and enjoy them, and that, unfortunately, they are now unable to pay for them. What action has the hon. Lady's Department taken to contain food prices, in view of the avalanche of price increases about to descend on the British housewives?

Mrs. Fenner

I have cooked more such meals than the hon. Gentleman will ever have done, and I point out to him that that increase falls within a cost of living increase of 34½ per cent. Since average earnings have increased by 50½ per cent. in that time, the hon. Gentleman cannot gainsay the fact that there has been an increase in the standard of living. Clearly, he has missed seeing the tape today. I am sure that the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) will be delighted, because the cost of the British bacon and egg, has gone down today.

Sir John Hall

Can my hon. Friend tell us by how much world food prices have risen over the same period?

Mrs. Fenner

World food commodity prices last year alone rose by 50 per cent. The Opposition cannot blinker the eyes to the fact that, as a nation which imports half the food it eats, we cannot be isolated from a 50 per cent. increase in world prices in 12 months, representing double the increase over the previous 14 years.

Mr. Molloy

Does not the hon. Lady agree that in 1970 the Prime Minister was either totally inept or was making crass promises he knew he could not fulfil when he said that prices could be cut at a stroke? When the hon. Lady was appointed to her present post, she was announced as the "housewives' watchdog" on prices, but her behaviour since has made Sooty look like a veritable tiger. Does not the hon. Lady understand that in every household, week after week when prices rise, there inevitably is an effect on the industrial scene when ordinary housewives cannot get enough money to meet the food bills? Will the hon. Lady acknowledge that fact and stop giving us a catalogue of excuses which make Hans Andersen look like a fifth-rate operator?

Mrs. Fenner

In a period of inflation, especially of world food prices—which, for example, has resulted in an increase in the cost of living in Canada of 17 per cent., in Australia of 18 per cent. and in the United States of 19½ per cent. in one year—I recognise that the housewife has difficulty in making the budget go round. I am a watchdog for the housewives, and I have noticed with interest that a recent survey showed that 45 per cent. of the housewives in Britain received no extra money to spend on food last year, in spite, of the wage increases contained in stage 2.

Sir B. Rhys-Williams

Does not my hon. Friend agree that while the men are getting the wage increases it is the women who are getting the price increases? In the circumstances it would not be appropriate to introduce a blanket increase in wages. Is not the right way to deal with the situation to incease family allowances?

Mrs. Fenner

That aspect is within the responsibility of my right hon. Friends, but my hon. Friend obviously accepts the point I have referred to—that, while expenditure on food has increased only by 23.9 per cent., spending on alcohol, which is predominantly done by the men in the families, has increased by 37.8 per cent.

Mr. Ashton

Why is it that when the miners ask for a pay rise it results in emergency Cabinet meetings, allegations of "Reds under the bed," opinion polls, flags up for an election and all the paraphernalia of the media brought to bear by the Prime Minister? When are the Government going to pay some attention to food prices and show the public that they are trying to take some action to control inflation?

Mrs, Fenner

The miners' dispute does not fall within my responsibility, but have heard my right hon. Friends point out that the increased pay to the miners over the last three years is twice as big as the increase in the cost of living.

Mr. Buchan

The hon. Lady would do better to remind the Prime Minister that he should fulfil the promise he made in 1970. It would certainly be better for the old-age pensioners, who are eating less at greater cost. Has not there been a fall in the protein intake of pensioners, although they are spending a great deal more than when the Prime Minister was making his ill-famed promises?

Mrs. Fenner

That is not so. The Department of Health and Social Security keeps a close watch on the protein intake of pensioners, and it is well above the recommended level.