HC Deb 08 July 1974 vol 876 cc926-8
Mrs. Sally Oppenheim

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection to what extent she has received evidence that her voluntary code is being observed by the retail food trade.

33. Mr. Neubert

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection whether she will make a statement on the working of the voluntary agreement, announced by her on 12th June, for retailers to make available a low-budget shopping basket of basic foodstuffs and other goods.

38. Mr. Moonman

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what evidence she has that her voluntary code is being observed by the retail trade.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

A number of the larger multiples, co-operative societies and voluntary groups have already announced the extension of existing offers or the introduction of new ones on items covered by the voluntary agreement. It will naturally take a little time before the full effects of the agreement are seen.

Mrs. Oppenheim

Is the right hon. Lady aware that, according to the latest figures available, 98.9 per cent. of retail food shops are not subject to the Price Code amendment and that of the remaining 1.1 per cent. only about one in 10 is operating her voluntary code? Since, therefore, only .01 per cent. of all retail food shops are operating her code, would she agree that the claims she made about the significance of this measure were exaggerated and would be better described as "Shirley's box of tricks"?

Mrs. Williams

I am absolutely astonished by what the hon. Lady has said because it is totally untrue. The Retail Consortium purports to represent 85 per cent. of the retail trade. It has informed me that the agreement applies to all its members. If the hon. Lady really supposes that 85 per cent. of the trade is done by 1.1 per cent. of the shops, she is under an amazing illusion. In addition, she is in effect repudiating the efforts of her right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe) when he sought an agreement on exactly the same lines as I have managed to get.

Mr. Moonman

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are many dispassionate people, not only in this House, who believe that she is doing a first-class job and is fulfilling the promises made by Labour during the last election? Can she advise the House when the lists are to be published indicating the goods which will be subject to voluntary agreement?

Mrs. Williams

I thank my hon. Friend for his initial comments. I sometimes have the impression that the Opposition cannot decide whether they want anything to be done about anything or whether they would prefer action to fail. We are moving as rapidly as we can on this. I have the assurance of the Retail Consortium with regard to the voluntary agreement that it will seek to introduce as rapidly as possible the labelling of all goods subject to voluntary agreement so that household shoppers may know exactly what they are getting and that margins are being held down on these goods.

Mr. Neubert

Does not the fact that the vast majority of these items have been on offer at promotional prices for a long period of time—so that the scheme will not have any effect on retail prices—indicate the sheer futility of such a move in attempting to achieve cost-of-living reductions? Would it not be more open to acknowledge that this scheme is nothing more than a one-day wonder?

Mrs. Williams

First, about 60 per cent. of the trade as distinct from the number of shops is affected by the 10 per cent. cut, and the purpose of the voluntary agreement was to concentrate those cuts which had to be made because of the amendment to the Price Code on the most essential goods.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman will realise, if he looks up my statement to the House on 12th June, that I did not claim that the voluntary agreement would affect the retail price index. I merely indicated that it would assist the least-well-off to buy essential goods at the lowest possible mark-ups.

Thirdly, I say once again that it is important that voluntary agreements which are believed by the trade to be effective should be supported not least by those hon. Members who are most loud in their condemnation of statutory controls.

Mr. Molloy

Does my right hon. Friend realise that when there are announcements such as that which was made over the weekend about the reduction of prices in the London metal market it must follow that her endeavours to lower prices. because they are combating inflation in the interests of the British people, will cause great anger among Conservative Members, and that the more anger we get from them the more successful her policies are?

Mrs. Williams

My hon. Friend's remarks need no comment from me.

Mr. Channon

Does not the right hon. Lady agree that at a time when commodity prices are falling it is all the more disappointing that there should have been record price increases in the last couple of months?

Mrs. Williams

First, the increase in the food index last month was the lowest for several months. Secondly, I have the word of the Chairman of the Retail Consortium that in his view the voluntary agreement is working, but we are both agreed that it should be more widely publicised than has been possible in the short period of three weeks.

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