HC Deb 08 July 1974 vol 876 cc918-21
2. Mrs. Reéne Short

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what further action she intends to take to try and reduce the rising cost of living.

39. Mr. Leslie Huckfield

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what further action she proposes to take to try to reduce the rising cost of living.

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

The measures which I have taken since coming into office, including tightening the Price Code, have reduced the rise in the retail price index by some 1½ per cent., and the retail food index by about 4 per cent. I am now considering further subsidies on basic foodstuffs, and when the Prices Bill is enacted I intend to impose maximum prices and retail margins on subsidised foods and to introduce unit pricing orders covering fresh meat, fish and vegetables.

Mrs. Short

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. I am anxious that she should not repeat the disastrous experience of the previous Government. Is she aware that the family expenditure survey for 1973 indicates that food takes about 25 per cent. of the expenditure on goods and services of the average family and that in 1973 expenditure on goods and services by the average family rose to nearly £40 a week, a rise of nearly a week over 1972 for the average family? Is it not urgent that we do not repeat that disastrous experience?

Mrs. Williams

I am obliged to my hon. Friend. We have endeavoured to concentrate Government action on food prices, and I am glad to say that the increase in food prices has slowed down considerably since the present Government came to office.

Mr. Gorst

Does the right hon. Lady realise that she has been waving a ludicrously expensive and ineffectual wand and that the rate of inflation, according to her hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, is now running at 23 per cent. per annum—

Mrs. Williams

indicated dissent.

Mr. Gorst

The right hon. Lady waves her head as well as her wand. That information was given in a Written Answer to me on 26th June. Will the right hon. Lady, recognising that the measures she has taken are ineffectual, now come to terms with the fact that it is the lower-paid members of the community who require assistance and that a general hand-out to everyone is not wanted?

Mrs. Williams

The hon. Gentleman should not base his assessment of inflation on one month's figures, which is what he has done in referring to that answer.

Mr. Gorst

Three months.

Mrs. Williams

What the hon. Gentleman has said is not borne out by any figure that I have seen, and I may add that he is not helping the country by giving credence to that sort of alarmist statement. The Government have taken steps through food subsidies, which the hon. Gentleman's party opposes, through the voluntary agreement and in other ways to give special help to the lowest paid, and they are to increase pensions by the largest historic proportion ever next month.

Mr. Huckfield

Will my right hon. Friend take it that most of us on this side have found in our constituencies that there is wide acceptance, agreement and support for what she is doing, but will she accept that we are awaiting more particularly a definitive statement on how she intends to use her powers under the Prices Bill to fix maximum prices? Also, will she say something about how she intends to use her powers to prescribe the fixing of lists of fair prices in shops?

Mrs. Williams

I must ask my hon. Friend to await the passage of the Prices Bill—which has not yet received Royal Assent—for most of the answer to that. I have already said that we intend to take early action as soon as that measure is passed to control retail price margins, to set maximum prices which will be displayed in the shops, in the first instance for subsidised products, and to introduce unit pricing for fresh food.

Mr. Channon

Does not the right hon. Lady agree that inflation at the moment is running at a terrifying rate? None of us wishes to be alarmist but the facts still are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) has said, that if the figures in the last quarter were to be repeated throughout the year the rate of inflation would be 23 per cent. It is running faster than at any time in our history, and since the right hon. Lady took office we have seen a great—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Even for the Front Bench, this is Question Time.

Mr. Channon

What does the right hon. Lady propose to do about it?

Mrs. Williams

The right hon. Lady would be quite glad if she occasionally got a little support from the Opposition for the things she tries to do. The great difference between the Government and their predecessor is that we at least try to do something about those things that we can do something about and do not sit back wringing our hands and attribute the whole thing to world prices.

5. Mr. David Steel

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection if she will make a statement on the recent increase in the cost of living index.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

As I said on television on 21st June when the retail price index for May was published, the main factors in the increase of 1.4 per cent. were seasonal changes in the price of vegetables and higher excise duties on tobacco and alcohol.

Mr. Steel

While that is no doubt true, may I ask the right hon. Lady whether she is aware that the recent quarterly report from regional surveys showed that working-class families in Scotland were the hardest hit of all by the new price increases under phase 3? Is she aware that the report found that the biggest differences between Scotland and the rest of the country were in housing and transport? Since neither of these matters falls directly under her responsibility, will she co-ordinate with her ministerial colleagues to see what can be done about this, particularly as another round of bus fare increases is being proposed by the Scottish Transport Group?

Mrs. Williams

I accept that there are particular difficulties in Scotland and other parts of the country which are remote from urban areas. We are looking at the possibility of constructing regional price indices in my Department.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim

Is the right hon. Lady aware that although she protests that she is doing a great deal about inflation we might be more ready to support what she is doing if there were any evidence that it was being effective? As the rate of inflation is increasing far faster than it did under the last Government, does she appreciate that we see no evidence of her policy being effective?

Mrs. Williams

The hon. Lady must be aware that there have been substantial increases in oil and raw material prices and that there has also been the three-day working week. The great difference between the period of office of the last Government and that of this Government is that we have taken direct action in respect of basic foods with the result that the food index has dropped each month in terms of the rate of increase compared with the figures for the last administration.