§ 3.4 p.m.
§ Mr. James Prior (Lowestoft)
We have just been discussing a tragic air disaster. Since the House met before the election the loss of the trawler "Gaul" with 36 men on board has been reported and today in Hull a memorial service is to take place to remember all those who lost their lives in this tragic accident at sea. I am certain that it will be the wish of the whole House if we record at this time our sympathy for those who were bereaved in this very serious loss at sea.
May I start by congraulating the right hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) on returning to the Ministry of Agriculture and the right hon. Member for Hertford and Stevenage (Mrs. Williams) on taking up her duty. May I say that this debate today gives an opportunity to explain those statements in the Queen's Speech which refer to prices and agriculture. I hope the right hon. Lady will not hide behind any facade that it is too early to be specific about the Government's intentions After all, they were specific in the manifesto during the election campaign and for a long time before that.
As long ago as last July the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party was saying that the following basic foodstuffs could be subsidised: milk, cheese, butter, margarine, cooking fats, eggs, sugar, bacon and ham, poultry, flour and bread.
372 Obviously they did their homework a long while ago. This was too ridiculous for words. By the time of the election the list had been modified to items bearing most heavily on the family budget. During the campaign itself the right hon. Lady reduced the list to the absolute essentials such as eggs, bread and cheese. So what set out to be a major promise to the electorate to hold down the prices of food by subsidies has been reduced to a few items, certainly not those which bear most heavily on the family budget —meat, fruit or vegetables or many other things—but bread, cheese and eggs.
No wonder the Daily Mail was forced to comment on Tuesday morning as follows:Mrs. Shirley Williams is the most attractive of the new Ministers. Alas, she has the least attractive job. Her orders are to hold down prices. But the Treasury cannot give her the money to do anything really effective. So the recipe has to be a gallon of talk to a spoonful of subsidy.Speaking of spoonfuls, I shall rename the right hon. Lady as the Mary Poppins of the present Government—a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.
§ Mr. Prior
It is a lot better than the hon. Gentleman has been capable of producing in the last 24 hours, anyhow. The truth of the matter is that the Labour Party and now the Government have deceived not only themselves but the electorate. The Government know perfectly well that the proposals put forward over the last year or so by them when in opposition are totally impracticable of fulfilment.
I turn to the question of the establishment of fair prices for certain key foods. What does that mean? Does it mean putting on a maximum price? How is it to be assessed? If the average is taken, does not that mean that many of the most efficient retailers would push up their prices? How does one assess the relative needs of the supermarket, enjoying mass sales, with a small shop on the corner giving a particular service? Have the Government considered for one moment the enormous variation in price that there is between branded articles from one shop to another?
I gather that the famous shopping basket portrayed by the right hon. Lady 373 on her election party political broadcast was bought in Fortnum and Mason. That is where the Labour Ministers do their shopping. The quality showed up quite well, but the price labels had to be changed quickly. Fixing the maximum price for certain food will presumably stop Fortnum and Mason from selling food. It will sell other goods instead on which it can make a greater profit. It will switch its shelf-space from one commodity to another, but stopping Fortnum and Mason from selling above the maximum price will not help the housewife shopping in the High Street. She goes where she can obtain the best value. By fixing the maximum price the likelihood is that she will pay more. I know "shopping around" has stuck in the right hon. Lady's gullet, but I fancy that maximum prices will prove just as unpalatable to her.
The right hon. Lady then turns her attention to the common agricultural policy. She affirms that it is to be renegotiated so that the British housewife can gain the benefit of lower prices abroad. I am rather surprised that she, of all people, should use this argument. I could understand the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries using it because he has never understood much about the Common Market anyway.
But the right hon. Lady knows that what she has been saying is absolute nonsense. I imagine that she is a member of the Labour Committee for Europe but, if not a member of it, she will have received a document which it put out on 20th February entitled "The EEC and Food Prices", from which I shall quote:By implying that the Common Market was significantly to blame for last year's food price increases, we could lead electors to believe that a change in our Common Market policy could bring prices tumbling down. Yet we all know that this is untrue, and if the electors were to believe this, they would be heading for a bitter disappointment.Again:We are still concerned about the tendency of some Labour speakers to take it for granted that Britain still has an alternative of cheap food from the Commonwealth and other overseas sources.
§ Mr. Prior
Not yet.This is certainly not true at present—world food prices are the same as, or higher than, Common Market prices. Between June 1972 and June 1973, the Economist World Food Price Index went up from 143.0 to 250.4—getting near to doubling.The last remark on its three-page document is:The Tories have these facts and can quote them back at us. If we suggest to the electorate that a Labour Government can offer cheap Commonwealth food, Labour should avoid such weak arguments.How on earth can the right hon. Lady produce the sort of party political broadcast that she produced on 15th February?
§ Mrs. Short
Far be it from me to spoil the right hon. Gentleman's fun. Is he aware that most of us on this side of the House pay little regard to the outpourings of the so-called Labour Committee for Europe, and nor do most people in the country? We would rather pay more attention to the New Zealand Minister of Overseas Trade, who stated yesterday that New Zealand could provide us with butter, cheese and meats—lamb in particular—much more cheaply than the Common Market countries could, and we are therefore backing our Ministers who are trying to renegotiate terms of entry into the Common Market.
§ Mr. Prior
I know that the hon. Lady has never paid much attention to anything put out by the Labour Party, but I shall be dealing with that point a little later. The manifesto continued to talk about bulk purchase and new marketing arrangements that will help to stabilise food prices. That kind of statement makes me wonder what the Labour leaders have been up to for the last few years. It certainly shows that they have understood nothing of what has happened in the world outside and what has happened in many of our traditional markets. I shall be dealing with the hon. Lady's point.
Let us take sugar. Under the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement we imported sugar at £61 per ton, which was an increase of £14.50 compared with the price under the last Labour Government, who, incidentally, raised the price of sugar to Commonwealth producers only once during their term of office, in 1966, and then by only a small amount. So much for 375 all those crocodile tears about Commonwealth sugar producers and aid for underdeveloped countries that we kept hearing about when we were in office.
The world price of sugar is now £245 a ton. To stop Caribbean countries from diverting to world markets and away from us, we had to increase the price before the election to £88 a ton although they asked us for £106 a ton. We may even have to ask France now to make up the deficit in sugar that the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement countries are unable to provide for us.
Today I have heard that approaches are to be made to New Zealand and possibly Australia about supplies of cheap food. Perhaps I should help the hon. Lady and hon. Gentlemen opposite by quoting from an article that appeared in The Australian on 14th February. It was headed:Cheap food just a Wilson pipe-dream".It said:The real point is that in the past 15 years Australia's trading patterns and economic strategy have entirely reoriented"—
§ Mr. Prior
Fifteen years I am speaking of. It continues:—as the natural result of world trends—to swing in the same direction. With Japan now our major trading partner—with our primary agricultural products now attracting a wider, and therefore securer, range of international customers—there is no way in which we could suddenly switch back to the old position of economic subservience to Britain, as the supplier of cheap Commonwealth food … Mr. Harold Wilson's alternative may look attractive in London, but it deserves the thumbs down in Canberra. Certainly Australian rural opinion must not be seduced by the economic jingoism of the British Labour leader"—[Interruption.] The article was written for The Australian newspaper which, if it is anything to go by, is not the sort of paper which would support our party. I think this is a fair assessment of the situation in Australia, and I think we can, therefore, rule out any chance that cheap food is available anywhere in the world today.
I come now to the favourite stalking horse of the Government—profits. "Large profits ought to be pegged back" was the theme of the election campaign. 376 The out-of-date figures were quoted on a Labour Party political broadcast. They were totally distorted. The profits related to an earlier period, including profit earned overseas. As the chairman of Associated British Foods stated,It seems that Mrs. Shirley Williams and the Labour Party expect us to reduce prices in this country every time we change the currant bun in Auckland, Melbourne or Cape Town. So do they believe our export prices are too high and that we should not be making money selling tea to Japan or biscuits to Bahrain?In 1973–74 the United Kingdom food manufacturing profit growth rate is well below 10 per cent. That is below the rate of inflation. It is below the rate at which money can be borrowed and it will lead to a cut-back in investment. If investment is cut back as a result of the lack of profits, then prices will rise faster. In future, people who work in those industries—and this is particularly true of female labour—will not enjoy the higher wages that we wish them to have. Many of our best companies will fall easy prey to take-over bids from the United States.
The right hon. Lady knows that the Price Commission has adequate powers and is using those powers to restrain price increases. For her to take further action would spell disaster to the food industry, and I warn her that we shall not stand idly by and allow this to happen. Incidentally, I hope that the Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries will not stand idly by either. His Department has been responsible for food and the food industry for a great many years, but it seems now that he has lost it. The power of his Department has been reduced.
All the good relationships built up over the years between the food industry and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are now being lost, and there is great concern in the food industry about it. Both the right hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Lady know this to be true. Without doubt we have the most efficient food manufacturing and distributive industry in the world. When one compares the price of food in Britain with the price in almost any other country, one recognises the truth of that statement.
Last year, the industry absorbed a 50 per cent. rise in world raw material prices into an increase in the retail price index of manufactured food, which is over half 377 the index for food generally, of 13.9 per cent. The plain truth is that, as usual, the Labour Party did not do its homework in opposition. Its propaganda was, at best, deceptive and, at worst, plainly dishonest. If faulty description means anything to the Minister of Consumer Protection, she could be sued by her own Department.
§ Mr. Norman Buchan (Renfrewshire, West)
If this were all due to world prices, can the right hon. Gentleman tell us why prices rose more sharply in Britain than in any country in Europe, with the exception of Iceland?
§ Mr. Prior
For one thing the hon. Gentleman is wrong about his facts and, for another thing, he does not seem to understand it is very hard to get this message across to the anti-Common Marketeers on the benches opposite—that the common agricultural policy has in the last year enabled Europe to have lower food prices than the rest of the world.
§ Mr. Prior
It is no good the right hon. Gentleman shaking his head. He should do his homework and then he might know better.
I turn now to the prospects and problems of agriculture. In the six years of Labour Government commodity prices rose by 6 per cent. In our period of office they rose by 80 per cent. What this means in terms of agricultural production is that in the six years of Labour Government the average increase in production in Britain was 1 per cent. per year. In the three and a half to four years since 1970 the average increase in production has been nearly 4 per cent. So we have at least got the agricultural industry moving forward again. If all that the right hon. Member for Workington is able to do in the short period of office that he will have is to raise agricultural production at the rate of 1 per cent. a year, we shall be in an even bigger muddle over our food supplies in years to come than we are now.
The truth of the matter is that the ability of the world to reproduce population is now much greater than the ability of the world to grow extra food to feed 378 itself. That is true not only of food but of a large number of raw materials as well.
As other countries grow richer they can afford to pay prices for food and other raw materials that we can no longer afford to pay, or can afford to pay only with great difficulty. When food and raw materials are short it is those countries that have the most money that can afford to buy them. Either we have to pay the price or we go without. Up to a few years ago we could always afford to pay a higher price than anyone else. That is true no longer.
I believe that it is vital that we should give top priority to agriculture. We should give agriculture top priority because, first, the energy crisis that we have just experienced with all its dramatic consequences on the British economy could be nothing compared with the food crisis that we might have to face later in this decade. If we do not produce more food at home we may find ourselves in a very serious position. In addition to that, the problem of import saving has not, I submit, been given sufficient thought and consideration in Whitehall.
It is far more important for Britain now, as the Conservative Government did, to give agriculture the priority and help that it deserves——
§ Mr. Prior
We increased agricultural production by nearly 4 per cent. a year. That compared with 1 per cent. a year in the six years of the previous Labour Government. I am not prepared to listen to any statement at all by any Government supporter about the part they played to help British agriculture. Their policy was disastrous for British agriculture.
§ Mr. Jeremy Thorpe (Devon, North)
If the right hon. Gentleman is not prepared to listen to any criticism from the other side, perhaps he will listen to a suggestion from me. Does not he think that the fact that the previous Government had to make a, retrospective payment to milk producers was the most devastating admission of how long they had under-recouped? Is he aware that it has 379 come far too late for many milk producers, who have already gone out of milk and into beef production?
§ Mr. Prior
All I say is that there is a tremendous conflict between the two when it comes to Liberal Party policy.
Until last July the dairy industry enjoyed the best period of prosperity that it had ever had. It is a tragedy for farming that the high price of cereal has distorted the balance between livestock and cereal production and for that reason we took action in the Price Review this year to help the dairy producer. I found that dairy producers were extremely grateful for what we had done.
We still have enormous problems to get the balance right between cereal and livestock production; it is not right at the moment. It must be put right quickly. But it does not alter the fact that if one is fair about our policy we achieved a considerable increase in production. We achieved a considerable increase in the overall profits of the industry. What is even more important is that for the first time ever the agricultural worker enjoyed under the Conservative Government a good and improving standard of living.
§ Mr. Prior
It did not. The hon. Gentleman must get his facts right. He will know that wages were frozen for about a month and that the agricultural workers then had the biggest increase that they had ever had. They deserved it. When the Labour Party were in government last time they disbanded for a time the operations of the Agricultural Wages Board. The hon. Gentleman would do well to keep quiet.
§ Mr. Mark Hughes (Durham)
The right hon. Gentleman suggested that his Government managed to bring about an increase in production. In fact, beef and veal production went down during his period of office, and mutton and lamb production has fallen. Would the right hen. Gentleman like to qualify what he said?
§ Mr. Prior
Mutton production has fallen because people are keeping their ewes longer than before because they see a future in sheep which they did not see previously. I am glad that veal production has gone down. Not many of us like the way in which veal is produced and perhaps it is not a bad thing that production has declined. But overall agricultural production increased considerably under the Conservative administration.
§ Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)
The right hon. Gentleman discussed our point in the election manifesto about new marketing policies, but he carefully circuited round the question of commodity markets. Has he noticed within the last few days that commodity prices of all kinds declined sharply in one day by about 20 per cent. simply because the American Government proposed to introduce a commission to control such markets similar to the Securities and Exchange Commission which controls share prices? Does the right hon. Gentleman think that all commodity prices are totally accidental features of the environment?
§ Mr. Prior
No, I do not. But, in contradiction to the hon. Gentleman, I looked at the commodity index in the Financial Times this morning, and I did not notice that there was a decline in commodity prices, I wish, for the sake of Britain, that there were. The truth is that commodity prices, as measured by the index, are higher now than they have ever been in our history. The forward rates for cereals, sugar or anything else are running at all time highs. I must keep making the point—because it does not seem to be understood by the Government—that the world is short of food and those who have the money to pay for it get the food because they can afford highest prices. The world is short of all commodities at a time of advancing standards and, whether it be for copper or timber, the prices rise. Britain is no longer a rich enough nation to be able to pay the 381 price which in previous years she could pay and which no one else could afford to pay. No longer can we afford the luxury of great inflation at home.
On top of the commodity explosion about which I have been talking, there is the energy crisis, with its quadrupling of the price of oil. Quite rightly, this means borrowing large sums of money but that makes it even more essential to reduce the rate of inflation at home. The present rates of interest on sterling are between 12 per cent. and 15 per cent. By the time North Sea oil is flowing in quantity, and before 1980, we shall be paying out in interest the same amount as the current deficit on the balance of payments. That is to say, if we run a deficit now of £2,500 million—and it could be more—by 1980 we shall be paying that in interest on the debt by then incurred. In other words, we could face a situation in which we have mortgaged the oil revenues in advance of receiving them.
§ Mrs. Winifred Ewing (Moray and Nairn)
Has the right hon. Minister overlooked one possibility—[Hors. MEMBERS: "Ex-Minister."] I am sorry, I am a little out of touch with the House. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] That is my point. The House may be out of touch with events in Scotland. Has the right hon. Gentleman not missed out of his calculations the possibility that in a democratic society, through the procedures of the House, a Scottish government may be in charge of the oil by 1980, and that in that event his Government or Her Majesty's Government, whoever are in power will have to ask us for good terms on which to sell our oil to them?
§ Mr. Prior
Most of these matters were dealt with last night by my hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin), and I do not wish to indulge in that sort of controversy with the hon. Lady this afternoon.
Because of the great problem of inflation, the debts that we are incurring and the interest charges that we incur, it is vital that at this stage we have a statutory incomes policy as it is the only effective way of controlling inflation. The Government are discarding such a policy. They are borrowing larger sums of money from overseas to put off the evil day when we have to face reality. If hon. 382 Gentlemen opposite had supported us in our policy we should have needed to have borrowed less, and we might have borrowed at a good deal cheaper than we shall now have to pay.
During the last few days, various measures have been announced to hold down prices by means of increasing public expenditure. That is in addition to the considerable measures which we took. We estimate that in the current financial year they would have cost £750 million to the nationalised industries alone, and to that must be added the subsidy on milk which this year—the year which has just started—will run at the rate of £260 million. In all, that is £1,000 million.
We used subsidies to help restrain price increases, but now we are faced with the massive plans of the Government. Are they really the best use of our resources? Subsidies go to everyone, to both rich and poor, and once they are put on they are difficult to remove. Subsidies remove choice because they lead to restrictions in freedom. They increase taxation. They mislead the public about the true cost of the things that they buy—[Interruption.] I am talking about the limit to which one can go. Subsidies divert precious resources from productive investment. Can it really be argued that £2,000 million spent on subsidies for food and the nationalised industries is as valuable to our long-term stability and prosperity as putting that cash into investment in manufacturing industry, whether private enterprise or nationalised?
What I find worrying about the present situation is that the country voted for the soft options. It was a vote protesting against rising prices, without facing any reasonable means whereby rising prices could be coped with. The country has still not faced the true realities of the world in which Britain has to make its living. I am talking about the realities of world prices, of the cost of inflation and of the cost of borrowing to keep ourselves going.
The belief is that by clever manipulation of the tax burden or the transference of wealth one can avoid paying the full price for what we have to buy. People should realise that one does not create prosperity for the less well off by denying the better off the opportunity to create wealth. The Queen's Speech is a further 383 attempt to fool enough of the people for enough of the time. It incorporates policies which are detrimental to our long-term and short-term interests, and we are bound to put that view firmly on the record.
§ 3.36 p.m.
§ The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Fred Peart)
The House has listened to an incredible speech from a man who supported the then Prime Minister's statement that he would reduce prices at a stroke and who later said that we should not take the Prime Minister's words too seriously.
The right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) should remember that when we debated the legislation affecting our entry into the Community it was his Government who negotiated New Zealand's position, with the result that that country has less access to our markets than she had before. The right hon. Gentleman knows that he was criticised for that by both Australia and New Zealand. The right hon. Gentleman has never believed in the Commonwealth. He has always rejected it, and he shows towards New Zealand a hostility which I resent.
I welcome the fact that the problems of agriculture and prices are being debated today. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection will conclude the debate and deal with prices, her position in the Government and her broad proposals. The right hon. Gentleman, being a former Leader of the House, should know that legislation cannot be produced within a week, but I assure him that it will be introduced by my right hon. Friend.
I welcome the debate. Naturally, I shall, in the main, be dealing with agriculture and food supplies, and in concluding the debate my right hon. Friend will deal with prices as they affect consumers. I shall not cease to have an interest in the food producing industries. I have a great responsibility there, and I have always consulted those involved. Indeed, only last night I had informal discussions with many of the leaders of those industries about the problems affecting them. It is wrong for the right hon. Gentleman to assume that my Ministry has no interest in this matter. 384 When I was Minister of Agriculture in the previous Labour Government my relations with the food industries were as good as those of any other Minister responsible for this sector of out economy.
Our aim is right, and we stated it clearly in the Gracious Speech. Our aim is toencourage the maximum economic production of food by the farming and fishing industries of the United Kingdom in the interests of the national economy.".Thus, we intend to pursue the policy that has been followed by all Labour Governments since the war. The purpose of that policy is to create the conditions in which British agriculture can thrive, in which farmers obtain a fair return for their produce and in which consumers pay a fair price for their food.
Before going further I should like to pay a tribute to all those engaged in agriculture for their maginficent work over the years to increase productivity and feed the nation. These are the people on whom any effective agricultural policy depends. I am confiden that they will give me their full co-operation in what I shall try to do.
I accept the point made by the right hon. Gentleman, who also is a former Minister of Agriculture. I realise that times have changed, as he has said, and that we must change with them, but I regret the loss of that close contact between Government and the industry which we used to have in the days when the old county committees were active and we saw co-operaiton between farmers, farm workers and landowners. That co-operation was clearly there for all to see. I am sorry that we have gone from that past and that we have not now the institutions that existed during the life of previous Labour Governments. I hope that we may at least revive the spirit of co-operation that we had in those days.
Right hon. and hon. Members of the Opposition completed the annual review before they went out of office, though they left us to publish the White Paper. They presumably considered that they had dealt with the outstanding problems where these were not linked with the Brussels price negotiations which they had left unfinished. Here I agree with the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of 385 the Liberal Party. It is only at election times that Tories respond fully to the farming community. [Interruption.] Right hon. and hon. Members know that that is so. It is in the history of price reviews; the farmers could always be sure.
§ Mrs. Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)
Was there an election five months after the Conservative Government took office in 1970? That is when my right hon. Friend took action to help farmers and to save them from disaster.
§ Mr. Peart
I believe that the hon. Lady has not read the history of the price review. One can link the price reviews to the times when the Tories were going to the polls. There is no doubt about that. The Leader of the Liberal Party was quite right in his assessment of the award to milk producers.
Whatever the reasons, the previous Government left a situation which was rather dangerously unfinished. They have left a fairly messy situation to us. We shall have to look at all the arrangements made by the previous Government to make sure that they are consistent with our general policy and the requirements for a thriving agricultural industry in this country which must be geared to meet the needs of consumers and of the nation as a whole. Right hon. and hon. Members of the Opposition tend to neglect the consumer point of view. We have never done that.
There is one point on which I am sure that all parties represented in the House can agree; that it is overwhelmingly in the national interest to reduce our dependence on imported food by the encouragement of an expansion of British agriculture where that can be achieved efficiently and economically. Here I agree with the right hon. Member for Lowestoft, who stressed that principle in his speech. I am certainly not one of those who think that the present high world prices of the principal primary foodstuffs will be a permanent feature of the world economy. I do not think that we shall be permanently at the mercy of world shortages of essential foodstuffs. There is still a problem of production in the world. Every FAO report has indicated this. We must take it seriously, 386 from the point of our country's interest and, above all, for the developing world.
§ Sir Bernard Braine (Essex, South-East)
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who has testified for the first time about what the FAO has pointed out over and again—that per capita production of foodstuffs in the developing countries has been falling. It is a tragic fact that this argument is taking place against the background of higher prices for us while hundreds of millions of human beings in the developing countries are facing starvation.
§ Mr. Peart
I agree. I have always stressed that, even when in Opposition, as I did when I was a Minister previously. This is one of the great challenges that we still have to face.
I do not think that we shall be permanently at the mercy of world shortages of essential foodstuffs. But the risk that some world prices will be high from time to time remains. Our people could suffer because of the price they have to pay for their food. Similarly, our economy could suffer from high food prices. This can be caused both by the uncertainty of world price movements and the effect that comparatively small variations in world supplies can have. Because we have to import so much of even our temperate food we are constantly vulnerable.
This situation cannot be altered overnight. The extent of our vulnerability has certainly been reduced over the years by the efforts—I admit this—of Governments of both parties, and we now produce nearly 70 per cent. of our requirements of those foodstuffs which it is possible to produce in this country, but we need to increase production at home as far as is economically sensible and as far as is compatible with a proper use of resources in the extremely difficult period that lies ahead. This is not simply—or, indeed, mainly—a matter of providing more money for the farmers. It is a matter above all, of using our limited resources in the best way possible. Where additional Government help is required, it must be employed in a selective way, where it can produce the most positive result. This, in essence, is the policy that the Government will be following.
§ Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North)
On that very point, does not the right 387 hon. Gentleman agree that pig producers in Northern Ireland desperately need an injection of cash? I have written to the right hon. Gentleman about this matter. This is particularly so in Northern Ireland because of the heavy freight charges which add to the cost of feeding stuffs.
§ Mr. Peart
I have already met representatives from Northern Ireland and members of the House who represent constituencies there about this matter. I met them immediately. I recognise that there is a Northern Ireland problem, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is a problem in the United Kingdom, as well. This is one of the first major problems with which I am dealing.
§ Mr. Peart
I cannot answer that question yet—[Interruption.] It was the present Opposition's price review and it was the Opposition who failed to do anything about this.
The White Paper shows clearly enough the difficulties that agriculture faces, brought on mainly by the huge increase in cereal prices which has massively increased the problems of the livestock producer. A good part of this price increase has been due to the large depreciation of the pound during the lifetime of the previous Government. We shall have to face and deal with all the problems caused by the energy crisis and the ravages of the three-day working week. But most of all we are faced by a fundamental imbalance in the industry between the cereals sector, which has been doing extremely well, and the livestock sector, which has suffered problems of very serious dimensions. In other words, I am emphasising the point made in the question put to me by the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder).
The Conservative Party acted on the milk situation after a great deal of prompting. I hope that it did not leave its action until too late. We still have an extremely serious situation on pigs. We shall have to find a way of solving this problem. We need to produce a situation in which our farmers have confidence to maintain planned expansion, while consumers can obtain their food at fair prices. I very much fear that we have 388 inherited from the previous Government a situation in which high market prices are combined with a lack of confidence in the industry.
§ Mr. John Biffen (Oswestry)
The right hon. Gentleman rightly says that there is considerable concern among pig producers. In the current economic circumstances of the industry, will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that he hopes to be able to remedy this situation without having recourse to Brussels?
§ Mr. Peart
Irrespective of Brussels, I believe that the crisis is there, and whatever the effect of our entry into the Community and, indeed, discussions in which I shall be participating, I believe that there is a real problem here which I hope might possibly be settled without any decisions there. On the other hand, I cannot give a prior commitment at this stage. I cannot say whether talks in Brussels will be held. That would not be expected of me, anyway.
A situation in which high market prices are combined with a lack of confidence in the industry would be the worst of both worlds—for consumer and farmer. We must put it right, but we must also recognise that if we want to maintain a given level of production we must ensure that the necessary costs of efficient producers are met in one way or another.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs will be making a full statement on our European policy in the very near future and so I do not want today to try to anticipate this. It would be wrong of me to do so, but I say at this stage that I shall be attending the meeting of the Council of Agricultural Ministers which has now been arranged for 21st and 22nd March.
§ Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)
We have heard from the former Minister of Agriculture a sharp attack on subsidies. However, he failed to do anything to help the glasshouse industry in which oil prices have increased three-fold. May we have an undertaking that the Minister will look at this as a matter of urgency and take action to help glasshouse producers? There has been substantial investment by glasshouse producers, particularly in my constituency.
§ Mr. Peart
I shall urgently look at this question. I have had discussions on this already.
We have to taskle the main problem of inflation, particularly in the context of food prices, and we cannot hope to achieve a solution unless we operate a more flexible policy than that of the previous Government. We must not be hidebound in the method we use of confining ourselves to what has been tried with only limited success in the past.
No one can be sure what will happen to world prices, but I have stated my opinion. I think we are moving into a period of much closer balance between supply and demand, so that relatively small natural hazards—say, a crop failure in only one important country—can have a major impact on world trade and prices. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Lowestoft would agree with me on this.
This points to the need to do two things. First, it is all the more important, as I have already said, to encourage maximum economic production in our own country. Secondly, we should do what we can to improve stability of trade in a very volatile situation. If we can bring a degree of assurance of supply, of markets and of prices, it can only be helpful both to the producers and to the consumers.
Stabilisation of trade in agricultural commodities by the use of international commodity arrangements has long been an objective of my party. I am glad to see that a measure of agreement on this now seems to be emerging internationally. The Government will therefore fully support the efforts to improve the stabilisation, expansion and liberalisation of world agricultural trade, particularly in the context of the GATT multilateral trade negotiations. I am glad to see that on this question the Opposition have similar views.
These negotiations will not be easy. As the former Minister knows agricultural trade raises many problems and its very nature prevents it from being treated just like trade in industrial goods. Nevertheless, the Government will ensure that the United Kingdom gives its full support to promoting the better arrangements for agriculture as part of the improvement of this part of a multilateral trading system.
§ Mr. Peart
I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman never understands anything. We have been in office only 10 days and we have not been able to come to specific decisions. The right hon. Gentleman ought to know of the broad principles which are involved. We shall have to come to specific decisions on many problems which were left behind for us and which should have been dealt with by the previous Government. I have, however, already been able to have discussions with the leaders of the farmers' unions, representatives of the farm workers' unions and of the Country Landowners' Association to get their views on the present state of the industry and on what needs to be done.
I intend to have continuing discussions with all sides of the industry and with other organisations concerned both with agriculture and food. I certainly intend to pursue the policy followed by previous Labour Governments of cooperation with all affected interests before action is taken. I do not propose to emulate the Opposition by beginning with a series of arbitrary decisions, like the abolition of the Northern Pennines Rural Development Board. That was an action of petty spite by the previous Government. The board was working well. It was led by a distinguished farmer—Tom Cowen, of the National Farmers' Union—and farmers and landowners in the North accepted that the board was for the good of the North and of the Pennine area. I also resent the way in which the previous Government cut back the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service as well as abolishing the Consumer Council.
What I want to achieve—this has been the policy of the Labour Party since the days of Tom Williams and the Agriculture Act 1947—is an efficient agriculture industry which can play an effective import-saving role and which can serve the country's needs. That is why our policy cannot be just a question of how much support farmers should receive. We must ensure a rapid spread of advances in technology. This is why I want particularly to encourage the development of ADAS into an even more effective means of assistance to farmers. 391 The setting-up of the NAAS and the other advisory services in a permanent form in the time of the first Labour Government after the war was one of the most positive steps taken to assist and improve our agriculture.
I remind the House that it was a Labour Government who initiated the studies that led to the unification of all the Ministries' professional and technical services into the present Agricultural Advisory and Development Service.
I was glad that the right hon. Gentleman, when he was the Minister, carried through this reorganisation, because it enables all the knowledge and expertise of the Department to be brought to bear on the problems of the farm as a whole. This will be immensely valuable to us in the future in working towards maximum economic production. But in welcoming what the right hon. Gentleman did to carry through these recommendations I must say that he could have done it in a way better calculated to get ADAS off to a good start. His pre-occupation with axing the number of civil servants added enormously to the difficulty of setting up the new service and inevitably had a most unhappy effect on morale in the Department.
I do not want to dwell too long on this, because there are other factors also affecting morale today, particularly pay problems to which my attention has already been called. I now want to give the service a period of stability in an atmosphere which will enable all these dedicated officers to give of their best, as I know they would wish to do, for the benefit of the industry and of the country. The hon. Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Howell) sits there grinning, but I hope he will recognise that I am paying tribute to some fine agricultural officers whose work has been an example to the world and I resent the way in which they have been sneered at. I want to do all that is necessary to make ADAS a really effective instrument once again.
What it really needs is not so much a great increase in numbers as a clear and consistent Government policy on agricultural matters as a background for its essential task of advising farmers on how to improve their productivity. I intend to provide such a policy. I am 392 sure that this is the way to improve the morale and the effectiveness of this essential service.
One thing which we must do in these days of high feed costs is improve our use of grassland. There can be little doubt that we have some of the best grassland in Europe—if not in the world —and it could be used to much greater advantage. But to manage grassland effectively is a highly-skilled and difficult job. It is much simpler and more convenient to use compound feed. But it is a skill we need to learn and here ADAS has a very important role.
Of course our problems increase to the extent that agricultural land is taken for other uses. The loss of agricultural land in England and Wales is increasing and is now running at 60,000 acres a year. We must therefore take even greater care than hitherto to ensure that wherever possible agricultural land of a higher quality is not taken for development where land of a lower quality is available, and that the amount of land taken for development is no greater than is reasonably required for carrying out the development in accordance with reasonable standards. These principles have been accepted by successive Governments for many years, but they are more important than ever today.
We clearly have to build on what we have already achieved to provide the basis for an efficient agriculture. We need the best possible farm structure to ensure that food is produced in the most efficient and least wasteful manner. We need an efficient system of marketing, and producer co-operation has an important part to play in this.
I was responsible, as Minister, for the 1967 Agriculture Act, which provided for the establishment of the Central Council for Agricultural and Horticultural Cooperation. This has been an effective instrument for the encouragement of cooperation and improved marketing. I welcome the decision of the last Government to increase the funds available to the council to improve marketing and to ensure a greater involvement of producer organisations. I am sure that this is right and that there is an opportunity here to achieve major improvements.
I want to refer briefly to the sugar situation and to report to the House the 393 results of the negotiations undertaken by the last Government with the aim of ensuring the maintenance of supplies of Commonwealth sugar to our market.
Our present prices under the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement were negotiated in 1971 for the three years 1972–74—namely, a basic price of £50 per long ton, f.o.b. and stowed, increased to £61 for the West Indies and £57 for the other developing Commonwealth producers. Discussions have taken place with the Government's consent and with the exporting parties to the agreement.
Having regard to the substantial increases in production costs since 1971. and to the effects on the economies of the developing exporting countries concerned, it has been agreed that compensation shall be paid on 1974 shipments from those countries in the form of an adjustment of £22 per ton in the price for 1972. A similar adjustment of £11 per ton has been agred in the case of Australia.
These adjustments will not affect the prices paid for the remaining period of the agreement or the prices paid by the consumers in the shops. The cost to the Exchequer is estimated at £35 million and a Supplementary Estimate will be presented in due course. Meanwhile, recourse will be had to the Contingencies Fund.
The exporting parties to the agreement have undertaken to use their best endeavours to fulfil their commitments to supply sugar to the United Kingdom market in 1974. This agreement will assist the producers in the developing countries of the Caribbean and in Fiji, Swaziland and Mauritius, and also consumers in this country. I am very pleased to be able to announce it to the House.
This afternoon I have concentrated mainly on what I might call the specifically agricultural problems, since, as I said earlier, my right hon. Friend, in reply, will be dealing with the Government's plans to tackle the problems of food prices. But any Minister who has responsibilities for both agriculture and food must inevitably have a duty to secure a balance between producer and consumer. There can be no question of checking the balance too far one way or the other, since if the producer does not get an adequate return he will not produce the food the 394 consumer needs. At the same time, if prices go too high the producer will not be able to dispose of his produce and the consumer will not be able to buy it.
The last Government introduced a ban on exports of ware potatoes to conserve supplies for the end of the season. In present circumstances, we must ensure the supply to the consumer. The latest assessment of the supply situation since the ban was announced indicates that that there would be no justification at present for relaxing it. We expect that supplies will, however, be sufficient to meet requirements. Producer prices have eased over recent weeks, but some weakening in the market is normal at this time of year. We shall, of course, be keeping the position under review over the coming weeks.
§ Mr. Richard Body (Holland with Boston)
Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that farmers growing potatoes and selling them at £16 a ton can earn a livelihood?
§ Mr. Peart
I have said that I will consider the situation. I believe that action may have to be taken, but I also believe that the last Government were right to do what they did.
We cannot escape the fact that the level of prices of basic foods is one of the keys to the solution to our present problems. I fully accept that the present levels of world food prices are due to a considerable extent to the state of world markets over which no one in this country has any real control. I have always done so. I recognise also the part which the EEC has played in trying to stabilize prices. But the effect of unrestrained food price rises on the economy, both as an encouragement to wage claims and in the effect of those living on small fixed incomes, means that economic stability and the control of inflation becomes next to impossible.
I am not suggesting that the problems will be easily solved, or that we can bring down food prices in the shops at the drop of a hat or, indeed—if I may coin a phrase which has been used again today—at a stroke. The fact remains that the last Government did far too little to deal with these problems. I have already explained what I think should he done internationally. and my right hon. Friend will be explaining the 395 Government's position on the national aspects.
Of course, the problems we face in agriculture and food supply cannot be easy, and I am not pretending that they are. So much depends not on Governments but on factors beyond the control of any Government, particularly on the result of the next cereal harvest.
The Government are determined to act positively where it is necessary to ensure that this country has the two things that it needs most—an efficient agriculture industry and food prices that are both stable and reasonable. These are the aims we set ourselves when we introduced the Agriculture Act 1947, and they remained our aims today.
§ 4.8 p.m.
§ Mr. John Farr (Harborough)
I am delighted to have the opportunity to follow the right hon. Gentleman. It seems perhaps rather strange that he is in the same office as that which he occupied in 1964 and has made roughly the same sort of speech today as he made then. It was full of the same sort of platitudes that he produced as Minister of Agriculture in 1964. For example, it was full of statements on the lines that some world food prices are likely to rise in future, and other quite useless gems such as that. As I recall it, his 1964 speech was full of similar platitudes, but after six years of office the last Socialist Government had an appalling record in agricultural expansion.
§ Mr. Peart
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be fair. A Minister who has been in office for only a few days could not possibly, before consultations with the industry, decide on many specific policies. The hon. Gentleman must also accept that I did not indulge in platitudes when I was Minister in the last Labour Government. I produced the Agriculture Act 1967 and did a lot to improve marketing and to bring about agricultural expansion. I took many other measures—for example, to improve hill farming and to set up the Pennines Rural Development Board, which the last Government destroyed.
§ Mr. Farr
I shall not give way to the right hon. Gentleman again, and he will understand why. I congratulate him sincerely 396 on his appointment, but it seems strange to us that he should make a major speech about agriculture and food prices without mentioning the common agricultural policy. How on earth can a Minister of Agriculture make a meaningful speech in 1974 without reference to the common agricultural policy, I do not know, but the right hon. Gentleman has simply read out a brief from his Department, without mentioning either the CAP or the Labour Party's pledge to review it substantially—a pledge which he is probably already wishing to forget.
§ Mr. Peartrose——
§ Mr. Farr
I shall not give way.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber) who was a first-class Minister of Agriculture. He was a first-class shadow spokesman on agriculture from 1964 to 1970 and he lived with the subject. I hope that we shall see him back on our Front Bench at an early date.
One point which I welcome in the Gracious Speech is the statement that the Government intend to stimulate farming and fishing output. This is the sort of statement with which we are familiar and which is to be found in Gracious Speeches produced by both parties. The Socialists produced a statement like that in 1966. They said that they would expand agricultural output. Unfortunately, as was shown by the Minister's speech today, their action did not live up to their promises. In the four years from 1966 to 1970 agricultural production was in many respects almost completely static. If we look at the figures for 1965 when the grandiose National Plan was introduced—and was forgotten a year or two later—it can be seen that in 1970 production in certain areas was less than it was in 1965, particularly as regards mutton, lamb, pork and eggs.
§ Mr. Cledwyn Hughes (Anglesey)
I would expect there to be a smack of the hustings about the hon. Gentleman's speech and there is. I am sure he will want to be fair and to look at the position objectively, as will his right hon. Friend. He should know that the beef cycle is a three-year cycle and that the increase in the beef herd from 1970 to the present time was the result of awards made by the Labour Government. That 397 is a matter of fact. Will he be good enough to acknowledge it?
§ Mr. Farr
I am prepared to acknowledge that. I am clearly substantiating what I said a moment ago, which was that annual production of four important commodities in 1970 was substantially less than it was in 1965. Those four commodities are not subject to three-year cycles. We all recognise that it is in the national interest to increase home production on our farms.
There are two special reasons for that at the moment. The first is to do with the large balance of payments deficit for 1973, announced today, and amounting to £1,470 million. We all know the reasons which have led to that deficit—the increased cost of raw materials, the quadrupling of oil prices and other matters outside the control of this country. We are likely to have a continued balance of payments deficit for many of the commodities we must import for as far ahead as we can see. It makes common sense to produce as much as we can at home.
The second reason why it is vitally important has to do with the staggering increase in the prices of some of our imported foods. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) said, we could have produced about 30 per cent. more but did not. These imported commodities have increased sharply in price in the past four years. For example, between June 1970 and January 1974 wheat went up in price from £30 a ton to £107, beef from 20p a pound to 34p, lamb from 13p a pound to 32p, bacon from £378 a ton to £705. Maize, which is a component of many feeding stuffs, rose from £30.50 a ton to £63.80. These increased prices are likely to remain with us. It therefore behoves the Minister and others in Government for the moment—however transitory may be their tenure—to recognise this and to do what they can to stimulate home production.
We all recognise that there is this need to encourage home production. How do we go about it? I have two suggestions. I hope the Minister will recognise, before he tackles the problem, that the position has changed since he was in office in 1970. In the years up to 1970. if it were necessary to stimulate production 398 on British farms it was enough to get the Chancellor to agree to the raising of guaranteed prices. After that had been done the necessary expansion could take place. All that has disappeared. The Chancellor has little or no say in stimulating agricultural production. What has changed is that the guaranteed price which farmers used to have—the floor—has completely disappeared. I, in common with other hon. Members, regret the passing of this guarantee to the farming industry.
Farming is a long-term business. It is necessary to plan over a cycle of years and to have some sort of floor or guarantee for that purpose. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman recognises that the two Acts to which he referred have disappeared and that in place of guaranteed prices we have the target price, the threshold price and the Intervention Board of the common agricultural policy. I hope he will recognise that if farming has to have a floor—and most people agree that it has—since the old guarantee has disappeared it is vitally important that the work of the Intervention Board must be maintained. That is the only floor that the producer still has to encourage him to expand home production.
I particularly regret the sort of article which appeared in the Daily Express recently criticising the work of the Intervention Board. Unless agriculture has this floor of the Intervention Board and unless it operates effectively British farmers will not contemplate pouring a lot of money into agriculture to gain increased expansion. There must he some sort of return.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will reach an early decision on the O'Brien report dealing with the export of live animals. I understand that that report was to hand shortly before polling day. I am sure that it will be among the papers now on his desk. I may be wrong but I understand that the report says that there has not been unnecessary cruelty in the export of livestock from this country. If that is so, I hope the right hon. Gentleman will get up and say so at an early date in the House and will lift the present ban on the export of live animals which is only inflicting harm on British farmers and is doing the animals no kindness whatever. In the past six 399 months while the ban has been in force our trade in the export of live animals has been taken over by the Republic of Ireland and the wretched animals—and the object of the ban, which was introduced by a humane Government, was to act in the interests of the animals—instead of having a relatively short journey across the English Channel now leave some Southern Irish port under much worse conditions and face a much longer journey.
I had hoped that the Minister would say something about the CAP. It is of vital importance—I understand that the Minister has been short of time—that attention should be given to the CAP. On 1st April the next transitional stage is to take place.
§ Mr. Farr
I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman said that he will be in Brussels next week. I do not trust him in Brussels unless I know what he will do there. It is important to remember that the next transitional stage is to take place on 1st April. It is difficult to see how we can help the animal producers of Britain because, as the Minister has already said, he has been pressed by Members from Northern Ireland and from other parts of Britain in respect of feeding stuffs for animals of all forms.
The problem can be pinpointed very easily—namely, we have only just begun the transition to the EEC level of returns to producers and yet we are paying prices for the feeding stuffs which are far in excess of those which would normally be paid. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will ensure that the transition stage of 1st April takes place as planned and that if necessary intervention buying takes place on a full scale so as to continue to provide the floor which British farmers need.
§ Mr. Peter Mills (Torrington)
Does my hon. Friend agree that the previous administration was seeking to negotiate so that considerable help could be given to certain sections of the industry, such as pig production, by renegotiation of the monetary compensation, which represents 400 unfair competition amounting to at least £3 a pig? That is something which the Minister could do in Brussels next week.
§ Mr. Farr
I am grateful for the intervention of my hon. Friend, who was responsible to a large degree for British agricultural policy.
I am a little unhappy about the Minister's attitude and a little unhappy about what he said. As I have said, his speech was a repetition of the sort of speeches which he made in 1964. I fear that we shall have the same sort of stagnation in the output of British agriculture which we had between 1964 and 1970. The facts are that in real terms there was an increase in production of only 1 per cent. per annum under the Socialists between 1964 and 1970 and that under the Conservative administration between 1970 and 1974 we had in real terms an expansion of 16 per cent. Those are facts which no amount of waffle from the Opposition Front Bench can hide.
The Government came into office with a lot of nebulous promises. There was, however, the firm promise that they would seek a major revision of the terms of British accession into the EEC. It was to be a fundamental revision. That in turn will mean a fundamental revision of the common agricultural policy. I know from my own experience that the other eight nations are not prepared to make any major revision of the CAP. That is why I regret so much that the Minister has missed his opportunity. He has had six years in Opposition to think about what he will do in Brussels next week. lie did not need to read out some wretched ministerial brief which amounted to nothing. He has missed a golden opportunity of telling the country how the CAP is to be revised and for what matters he will press. He has made a bad start to what I hope is a very short career in office.
§ 4.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)
The hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) complained that my right hon. Friend the Minister said almost nothing about the common agricultural policy—but neither did the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior). I shall do my best to correct the deficiencies of both Front Benches.
401 We have been helped in this debate by the fact that the Government have produced a most excellent Queen's Speech. It is a Queen's Speech which is very much on the lines of that which the country wanted to see. The Government are right to give priority to the promised freeze on rents, the promised rise in pensions, the promised attack on food prices, and the speedy repeal of the Housing Finance Act and the Industrial Relations Act. Apart from the national necessity to take all this action, the country will be heartened enormously by the spectacle of a Government who are immediately keeping their pledges and not indulging in all sorts of acrobatic U-turns.
If the good work is to continue, and the foundation is to be laid for a genuine incomes policy by consent, the Government must make an even more vigorous attack on food prices than that which my right hon. Friend was able to announce today. If the Government are to do that the common agricultural policy must be altered. My right hon. Friends will not merely have to use price control and food subsidies, although I am sure that those will be needed. They will also have to dismantle a great deal or all of the price-raising apparatus of food taxes, levies, hoarding and denaturing by the Intervention Board which was forced on us by the previous Government in following their deal with the EEC.
That does not mean that there should be no support for the farmers. Instead it means moving back to what the hon. Member for Harborough used to support—namely, a system of guaranteed prices and deficiency payments. We have a further grotesque example of price raising operations if we consider beef. At present there is an extreme beef famine and high prices. We should like to know from my right hon. Friend whether the reports are true that the EEC intervention boards are already hoarding approximately 40,000 tons of beef and that even our own Intervention Board is starting to build up a beef mountain of its own, so as to keep up prices and avoid any risk of falling prices.
What is the good of my right hon. Friend's paying large subsidies—and doing so, no doubt, with the best intentions—and putting all sorts of pressure on 402 the trade, and indulging in tough price control on food prices, when at the same time heavy import taxes are being imposed on virtually every major foodstuff and when a Government agency—namely, the Intervention Board—is hoarding beef, denaturing wheat and engaging in all sorts of other activities so as to keep up prices?
Nothing, I believe, contributed so much to the defeat of the previous Government as the spectacle of a British Government, in order to appease the authorities in France, indulging in restrictive and protectionist devices to make food dearer in Britain. That spectacle explains a good deal of the industrial unrest from which we have been suffering in the past 18 months.
§ Mr. Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler (Norfolk, North-West)
Despite the statement he has just made, will the right hon. Gentleman concede that in the last years the quantity of meat consumed per head in this country has consistently increased from year to year and that the British people are used to paying a fair price for a fair meal?
§ Mr. Jay
That is not true. The most reliable figures show that the British public ate a smaller amount of many types of meat last year than they did in the last months of rationing.
I trust that, compared with these policies, we shall now have a fundamental change—and "fundamental" is the word that appears in the Queen's Speech. That change cannot wait for the end of protracted negotiations with the EEC. The Labour Party's excellent election manifesto is helpful to us here. It is specific about renegotiation. It says:An incoming Labour Government will immediately set in train the procedures designed to achieve an early result, and while the negotiations proceed and until the British people have voted, we shall stop further processes of integration, particularly as they affect food taxes.We heard from the right hon. Member for Lowestoft—and there has been a good deal of propaganda of this kind—arguments designed to persuade people that food prices are now actually lower in the EEC than they are outside it, and, secondly, that the Common Market has had little effect on rising food prices in 403 the United Kingdom. Both these statements are almost wholly untrue, and I think the reason why the right hon. Member for Lowestoft has fallen into these fallacies is that he does not understand how the common agricultural policy works—no doubt, because, as he told us this afternoon, he never listens to anybody but himself.
First, the common agricultural policy involves a floor price below which food prices cannot fall, but there is no ceiling price at which the intervention authorities have to sell and above which they cannot rise. Therefore, the system is that Common Market food prices cannot fall when world prices fall, but they can and do rise when world prices rise.
Secondly, it is striking to notice—and this again the right hon. Gentleman seems to have overlooked—that in 1973 the three countries which joined the EEC—Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom—had retail food price increases, in the year, of 12 per cent., 16.2 per cent., and 20 per cent. Respectively—while the three former EFTA countries, which had the wisdom not to join—Norway, Sweden and Switzerland—had increases in food prices respectively of 5.9 per cent., 6.6 per cent. and 6 per cent. If the rise in world prices represents the whole cause of the rise in prices here, why has the rise in food prices been three times as great in the three countries which joined the EEC last year as it has been in the three countries which did not?
Thirdly, in the United Kingdom nearly half the rise in food prices last year was due to the 20 per cent. fall in the value of sterling, and that in turn was largely caused by the calamitous trade deficit of £1,100 million in one year which we suffered with the famous "great home market" of the Six, which was supposedly going to save us.
I had intended to ask the right hon. Member for Lowestoft the following question, had he still been here: if it is true that food prices in the EEC are lower than world prices, what is the purpose of all the import taxes which are designed to keep food out? If the right hon. Gentleman really believes his own propaganda, he should agree with me in wishing to abolish all food taxes and import restrictions. But in fact, the taxes and hoarding devices are already in many 404 cases holding up prices here above world prices. Butter, cheese and beef are obvious examples. According to the arrangements made by the previous Government, further increases in the price of butter and cheese are due in April unless we do something about it. At this moment Australian butter and Canadian cheese have been excluded altogether from the British market by the high import levies—nearly 50 per cent. in each case.
In addition—and the right hon. Gentleman seemed to be unaware of this until my hon. Friend intervened—on Tuesday of this week the New Zealand Minister of Overseas Trade, according to the Financial Times, said:New Zealand could still supply the United Kingdom with butter, cheese and lamb far more cheaply than any of the Common Market countries.He added:An increase in the amounts sold cheaply to the United Kingdom would depend on the new Labour Government's ability to modify the common agricultural policy away from the hard-liners and the more protectionist elements.I have the feeling that the British public will listen to the New Zealand Minister for Overseas Trade rather than to the right hon. Member for Lowestoft. That is the truth at last, and that is what we expect the Government to do. If we now start resolutely to work out longterm and stable arrangements with New Zealand, Australia and Canada for a start, for low-cost supplies to be freely imported here, the whole situation will soon be transformed. I am delighted to read today—I hope that it is true and can be confirmed—that the Government will now open negotiations with these Commonwealth countries as well as with the Common Market.
In accordance with the promises in the manifesto and the Queen's Speech, I hope that Ministers will resolutely and rapidly set about dismantling all these protectionist devices. It is no good paying large subsidies on food and at the same time levying taxes, which are now £93 a ton on New Zealand butter and £200 a ton on Australian butter. Why subsidise the food and levy taxes on it at the same time? The Government should now and during the period of the negotiations—as the Labour Party manifesto says—suspend the import taxes and levies on essential foods and 405 all the hoarding and denaturing activities of the Intervention Board. I say to the hon. Member for Harborough that if they do that, they must return to the more liberal and effective system of agricultural support which we had before. That would be a practical step towards stopping the rise in food prices, and it would also help towards a genuine incomes policy accepted by consent, which many of us on the Government benches want to see. That would be a much better contribution to such a policy than any partisan amendment that the Conservatives may put down to the Address on Monday.
I hope, therefore, that we shall have an assurance from my right hon. Friend that action along these lines will be begun at once. At the very least, no further price increases should be accepted by the Government in the prospective visit of my right hon. Friend to Brussels next week, and the further increases proposed in April in the price of butter and cheese, for instance, should not be carried out. There should be no more hoarding or denaturing, at any rate by our Intervention Board.
Only if we act resolutely along these lines now will the renegotiations have any chance of being taken seriously and succeeding. And the only hope of an acceptable incomes policy is to stop the rise in food prices now by action along these lines.
§ 4.40 p.m.
§ Mr. Harry West (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)
History has shown that nothing so effectively unites the British people as a crisis. All Members who are awake to the situation in which the country now stands and who have noted the measures outlined in the Gracious Speech will wish Her Majesty's Government well in their efforts to do what has to be done. It is a time when contributions from all quarters of the House ought to be constructive and kept clean from the narrower kind of party political motive. That is what the nation wants of us at this time.
It is a matter of pride and satisfaction to all hon. Members from Ulster that our part of the United Kingdom has been able to make a substantial contribution over recent years to Britain's trade and balance of payments. That is not always easy to quantify, but it is a matter for 406 comment that the latest figures given to us show that the average inhabitant of Northern Ireland has, in recent times been turning out goods or produce for export to a value of more than three times that which is produced for export by the average inhabitant of Great Britain.
The Gracious Speech states that the Government willencourage the maximum economic production of food by the farming and fishing industries of the United Kingdom in the interests of the national economy.Agriculture, as most hon. Members will appreciate, is the largest and most important single industry in Ulster, in terms both of its contribution to the economy of the Province and also of the overall employment given. It is because the industry is vitally important to our region that it is necessary to examine and comment upon the conditions under which it operates in Northern Ireland at present.
Before I go any further I should like to say how much we welcome the right hon. Gentleman, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, back in office. I had the happiest relations with him when he was in office previously. He came over to Northern Ireland, and we appreciated the work he did at that time. He mentioned Tom Williams in his address today. If he follows the example of Tom Williams, at one time a highly respected Minister of Agriculture, particularly in relation to the stability that he injected into agriculture, he will be making a substantial contribution to the welfare of the farmers of the United Kingdom.
Other hon. Members have commented on this matter already, but if there is one thing that has been missed more than any other in agriculture in recent years it is stability. I sincerely hope that the right hon. Gentleman will devote a lot of his time to reintroducing stabilised prices in order that the industry may have the confidence it so badly needs. As hon. Members have commented, agricultural production is a long-term process and farmers need to have some assurance for the future. That can be obtained from stabilisation of the price mechanism.
My colleagues and I come from a part of the United Kingdom in which the electorate reached a clear-cut decision. The attitude of the two major political parties is surprising to some of us, when 407 they have recently assured us that Northern Ireland will not be forced into the Republic of Ireland against the wishes of the majority. The Northern Ireland electorate have given a clear-cut indication of their desire to stay within the United Kingdom, and it is strange that responsible Ministers from both major political parties have been trying to set in motion types of machinery that will bring about the opposite possibility. I should be pleased if whoever concludes this debate for the Government would state clearly whether a change of policy has taken place. This is of great interest to the people of Northern Ireland.
I fully appreciate that the response given by the electorate in Northern Ireland was not that which was hoped for by the Government who have gone out of office and, possibly, by the two major political parties in this honourable House. Nor, even, was it the one expected by many Members of this House. But that merely goes to show how much out of touch many Members were with the true position in Northern Ireland and the true feelings of the people there.
I and my fellow Members representing the United Unionist parliamentary coalition are proud to be Members of this honourable House. We look forward to playing a constructive part in all aspects of its business, not only on matters affecting Northern Ireland but on matters affecting the United Kingdom as a whole I purposely emphasise this because I am conscious of the fact that back in 1965 the then Prime Minister, who, incidentally, is the present Prime Minister, posed the threat of limiting the voting rights of Ulster Members of Parliament. I am also conscious that his attitude was related to the fact that the majority of Ulster Members of Parliament at that time were Unionists and that they had the Conservative Whip at that time.
Indeed, HANSARD reports that on 6th May 1965 the Prime Minister referred to Ulster Unionist Members of Parliament ashacks supporting the English Tory Party".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th May 1965; Vol. 711. c. 1562.]In his emotional state he apparently overlooked the existence of Scotland and Wales, also within the United Kingdom. 408 He also apparently overlooked the fact that, with a few minor exceptions, taxes in Northern Ireland were imposed by the United Kingdom Government and were at the same rate as in other parts of the United Kingdom; moreover, the United Kingdom Government and Parliament determined how the money collected in Northern Ireland should be disposed of. In such circumstances, every area of United Kingdom expenditure and policy was of legitimate interest to Ulster Members, just as it was to Members of Parliament from other regions within the United Kingdom
That is even more true today, as the entire field of taxation in Northern Ireland is now a United Kingdom responsibility, under the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973. The United Kingdom Government and Parliament decide how much shall be available for spending in Northern Ireland, as in other regions of the United Kingdom. I want it to be clearly understood that my Ulster Unionist colleagues and I regard it as our right to participate in all Divisions and other business of this House, whether the matter in hand relates to the entire United Kingdom or only to a part of the United Kingdom. We also regard it as our right to vote on each issue according to our judgment of its merits. At this stage we do not intend to commit our support to any party, although we reserve the right to do so if circumstances should warrant such a decision.
The right of the 12 Ulster Members to participate fully in all the business of this honourable House is not enough to provide a fair deal for Northern Ireland. We would need at least 17 Members of Parliament, as recommended by the Kilbrandon Committee. I would ask right hon. and hon. Members present to consider the following facts. First, as I have already stated, taxation in Northern Ireland is decided entirely by the United Kingdom Government and Parliament, on the same basis as for other regions, and is calculated by the United Kingdom Government. Secondly, the allocation of all United Kingdom funds, including those available for spending in Northern Ireland, as indeed in other regions, is determined by the United Kingdom Government and Parliament. Third, the Parliament at Westminster may legislate for Northern Ireland on any matter and 409 may even change Northern Ireland's constitution on a simple majority vote.
I could extend this list to include many other relevant matters. However, I think that I have said enough in this House today to make it quite clear that justice demands that Northern Ireland should have the same level of representation at Westminster as do other parts of the United Kingdom.
Northern Ireland has been a part of the United Kingdom since the Act of Union of 1800—that is, for 174 years. We have always regarded this great Mother of Parliaments as the cradle of democracy, but I cannot think of any brand of democracy which would make it right for Northern Ireland to have only one Member of Parliament for every 90,000 voters when the average for Great Britain is one for every 60,000 voters, bearing in mind that all real power over Northern Ireland resides at Westminster.
The present Northern Ireland Constitution Act which provides for all real power to lie at Westminster is in line with the desire, so often expressed since 1968, of the United Kingdom Government to be more involved in Northern Ireland affairs. But, with respect, it is a blot on the reputation of this honourable House that an Act meant to improve democracy within the Northern Ireland region should be passed without first ensuring a fair representation from Northern Ireland at Westminster and without providing for such representation in the future.
Compared with United Kingdom citizens living in Great Britain, Northern Ireland people are being treated as second-class citizens. I must emphasise that even this great Mother of Parliaments is powerless to make us accept that position.
Nor can we accept other aspects of the 1973 Constitution Act, such as the appointment of members of the Executive by the Secretary of State, enforced power sharing, and sole control of security by the United Kingdom Government. Even a sizeable majority at Westminster does not, of itself, make legislation acceptable to those most concerned. This proved true in the case of the Industrial Relations Act and it 410 is even more true in the case of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act.
We in Ulster are dissatisfied with the way in which security has been and is being handled. I do not criticise either the police force or the Army; both have done a magnificent job within the limits of their numbers and their instructions from their political masters. It is an open secret in Northern Ireland that the members of the security forces feel as frustrated as do the general public. They simply have not been allowed to take the necessary action, a fact which was clearly stated recently by Lord Richard Cecil. He was an Army officer who, after serving three periods of duty in Northern Ireland, resigned his commission in protest.
The House is well aware that, in round figures, 1,000 people have been killed in Northern Ireland in recent times by bullets and bombs and in other violent ways. More than 98 per cent. of those deaths occurred after the British Government undertook overall responsibility for our security. More than 72 per cent. of those deaths have occurred in a period of less than two years since the British Government suppressed the Parliament of Northern Ireland, set aside our democratic institutions and took over entire responsibility for the government of the province.
The statistics of the numbers of soldiers and police wounded and injured have been kept since 1968; figures for civilians have been kept only since 1971. In round figures, there have been 12,000 cases of wounds and injuries, some of very serious proportions. Why should life be cheaper across the Irish Sea? In Northern Ireland's small population of only 1½ million persons, these events may seem to involve a relatively small number of people. Nevertheless, they have made a great impact on the population. Let us imagine how it would be if events occurred here in Great Britain of a similar kind and on a proportionate scale. In Britain we have a population 36 times greater than that of Northern Ireland. What effect would it have had on the British economy if there were launched upon the country a vicious terrorist campaign which resulted in 36,000 dead and nearly half a million injured? These are stern facts.
411 A great number of our population today are living in a state of high nervous tension. This nation would not put up with it for one minute. Killings, maimings, injuries are all still going on—and that is only part of it. There has been immense damage done by bombings and burnings of business and industrial premises and shooting at farmers working in their fields in Northern Ireland by terrorists from across the border, to say nothing of the damage that has been done to homes and private houses.
The city of Londonderry is one small example. It has a population of not much more than 50,000. Many Members have cities of that size in their constituencies. One half of all the business premises in Londonderry have been completely destroyed. The economic welfare of that city was of particular concern to the former Northern Ireland Government, and through the exertions of that Government there were established in its vicinity a number of large new industries providing many new jobs. These included the largest single complex of synthetic fibre industries in Europe. Most of these bigger industries still survive, but some have succumbed.
I and my colleagues condemn violence from any source. But we also say that the failure to control the IRA violence within a reasonable time led inevitably to what is called Protestant counter-violence—some, I would claim, in self-defence, some in retaliation. We also believe that once the United Kingdom Government demonstrate the will to crush the IRA, the Protestant groups will quickly disappear.
That brings me to my next point. I should like hon. Members to put themselves in the position of the Northern Ireland majority and think, objectively, how they would feel in similar circumstances. I have no doubt that they would feel as we do, a burning sense of indignation at the unfair treatment we have received and the failure to consider our point of view. The lying propaganda campaign against us was apparently swallowed hook, line and sinker in this honourable House. There was no objective look at our achievements which I firmly believe dwarfed our failures. There were other ways in which wiser United Kingdom Government policy might have 412 helped to prevent the violence in Northern Ireland, such as more help before 1968 in the creation of jobs and the provision of houses.
Time does not permit me to elaborate further. I have said enough to indicate that the United Kingdom Government bore a share of blame or responsibility for the troubles in Northern Ireland. Yet that Government have never acknowledged this, and instead have chosen to adopt a self-righteous posture and put all the blame on the then Northern Ireland Government.
The comment that we had in recent times from a leading politician was,Youv'e got yourselves into this mess, now get yourselves out of it.That hardly calls for comment from me.
Again, the non-co-operative attitude of a large proportion of the minority community over the past 50 years was a contributory factor to the troubles, as was the attitude of the Government of the Republic in continuing to claim jurisdiction over Northern Ireland, and failing to prevent the IRA from organising, training and attacking that part of the United Kingdom in which we live.
I must also make it plain that the vast majority of the Unionist people of Northern Ireland will never accept a Council of Ireland with executive powers and a parliamentary wing. That was shown quite clearly in the recent General Election. To most people from Northern Ireland it is too clearly the embryo all-Ireland Government. Members of the Social Democratic and Labour Party have publicly stated that that is how they also see it.
I am fully in favour of co-operating closely with the Republic of Ireland in economic matters, as previous Northern Ireland Governments have done. But that requires only meetings between Ministers and officials and does not call for the charade of a Council of Ireland with its own Parliament and executive powers.
Finally, I should like to deal with the charge frequently made by certain self-righteous people that because we are opposed to the United Kingdom Government's plans for Northern Ireland we are in some strange way disloyal. How fatuous that is! Those same people have not made such a charge against the millions of trade unionists who have so strongly 413 opposed the Industrial Relations Act and now appear to be in sight of its abolition.
Our loyalty in Ulster is to the British Crown, and not to a particular Government or Minister. We see Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, with its people having the same rights and privileges as any other group of people in any other part of the United Kingdom. We are not some sort of colony owing some sort of allegiance to England or to Great Britain. The Army in Northern Ireland is as much our army as that of Yorkshire, London or, for that matter, Great Britain.
We are sick, sore and tired of listening to people who should know better, talking about bringing the British Army home from Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is as much home for the British Army as anywhere else in the United Kingdom. We have always had an army presence in Northern Ireland. Ulster's contribution to the British Army in leadership has been substantial. The names of Alanbrooke, Alexander, Montgomery and Templer, to mention but a few, are honoured in the history of the British Army.
We shall fight to the limit, if necessary, to maintain our legitimate rights as part of the United Kingdom, but we shall co-operate with any United Kingdom Government who accept and recognise those rights.
The courtesy of the House has been extended to me, and I appreciate it very much. I also appreciate that my speech has not dealt entirely with the subject under discussion and I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the licence that I have been given.
Within the few days that I have been here as a new Member of Parliament representing Northern Ireland, I have had the privilege of discussion with the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries on agricultural matters affecting Northern Ireland. He has been most kind and courteous. In the short time that he has been in office he has, on three occasions, discussed with me beef cattle prices, the poultry industry and, of course, the world potato problem—a problem that also exists in Northern Ireland. I value the help that he has promised and his promise that he will look into those issues as a matter of urgency.
414 In closing, I should be failing in my duty if I did not say that, since coming to this honourable House for the first time, my colleagues and I have received the utmost kindness and courtesy from Mr. Speaker, from his jovial Deputy—your colleague, Sir—from the Leader of the House, from various Ministers on the Front Bench and from a great many hon. Members. We greatly appreciate it, and I assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that we intend to take a responsible and constructive part during our term in the House.
§ 5.6 p.m.
§ Mrs. Maureen Colquhoun (Northampton, North)
I understand that it is customary in a maiden speech to refer to one's predecessor in the constituency. I can imagine circumstances in which even the generosity of spirit that clings to a newly-elected Member must make this a special parliamentary difficulty. However, it is easy to find words with which to speak about Mr. Paget. He served Northampton and his constituents well for nearly 30 years. During that time, he held no blind allegiances. He had independence of action. He was his own man; he never cadged a vote.
In the former Member for Northampton my constituents had a real choice. I believe that it says something for him and for my constituents that in all those years—some of them turbulent—he was consistently returned to the House. His integrity and independence held their affection and their vote. Above all, I believe that he loved this House of Commons and his many friends here. I hope that in time I, too, will earn the same affection from my constituents and the respect from the House that were accorded to him.
Northampton's traditional industry is the manufacture of boots and shoes. As a consequence of the three-day week, the industry has lost a season of spring footwear fashion and styling which play such an important part in it. My constituents are most unhappy about those who introduced the three-day week, which they felt was entirely unnecessary.
Northampton is a town with a distinctive past that decided adventurously—some say impetuously—to face the future. I hope that as its MP I can participate in 415 helping to ensure that its future will be successful.
The subjects of today's debate are agriculture and prices. I will not speak on agriculture. Farming has always given me the impression of being the last major secret society in Britain—unchanged in its mysteries since mediæval times. Even the Ministers appointed by successive Governments to take charge of agriculture have seemed invariably to have mud on their boots and a look that suggested that they had just come in from milking.
I will say something about prices, because, during the election campaign, there was hardly a meeting at which I spoke where I did not pledge that the next Labour Government would do something about them. This problem is at the heart of our programme, with the kind of unshiftable relevance that the National Health Service had in the first post-war Labour Government.
What people are looking for from our Government are signs that we care about prices. During the reign of the last Government, especially during last year, there was an impression in the nation that the Government had adopted a feeling of hopelessness about prices, that they had given in. Fair or not, that was the impression that came over, and it must never happen to our Government. Never must we allow the hideous enemy, prices, to overwhelm us. This is where we stand and fight.
From a reference to prices it is natural to turn to those people who are most hit by the price rises—the pensioners. Pensions are being drawn at any given moment by about one-sixth of the population. But the provision of adequate pensions is of direct and personal concern to the whole nation, for it is true to say that all of us, even those of us who are still working, are pensioners in waiting. The provision of a secure old age, without having to count the pennies, without having to be dependent on the charity of reluctant relatives. is something that affects not merely the retirement period—usually very short for a man who retires at 65 and will probably be dead five to seven years later—but the last 10 years of a person's working life.
A working life without an adequate pension to look forward to is like working 416 from Monday to Friday knowing one will be hungry at the weekend; it is a cloud over one's whole existence. What is an adequate State retirement pension? The raising of the State pension to what seems to be an adequate sum has always marked the start of a new Labour Government. It did in 1945; it did so again in 1964, that being the largest improvement for 18 years. The £4 we then provided for a single person seemed a reasonable sum in those days of cheap food. In 1974 the provision of better pensions is again one of the leading items in the Government's programme. A figure of £10 for a single person and £16 for a couple is a defensible proposition, but we should not be complacent about it.
What I find most encouraging about the pension plan in the Gracious Speech is the promise that it will be linked with national income. That is better. That is a far less paternalistic approach to pensions than the idea presently prevailing of reviewing pensions at intervals to see what damage has been done to them by the cost of living. It establishes, for the first time, a principle of equality for pensions in relation to the rest of the population that has not existed before.
It is sometimes not appreciated by politicians that pensioners are not falling over themselves with gratitude for being given enough merely to prevent starvation. That may have been a laudable thought when Lloyd George introduced his mite. But things are different today. We live in a world of the most alluring consumer goods, and, if consumer goods are considered to be the inalienable right of working people, is it so wicked that pensioners should covet them as well? At the age of 60 or 65, does one, by some biological miracle, suddenly become an aesthetic, indifferent to the blandishments of the consumer world? Do not pensioners like sunshine holidays? Do not pensioners like to buy books and LPs? Do not pensioners like nice food and the occasisonal meal out, a new hair style and new clothes? Of course they do.
I am aware that for some pensioners the State pension is not the only source of income. I am aware of the complex system of private pension funds. But I am talking about the great bulk of the people of Britain, the working people, whose great achievement in life is to be 417 able to get through their working lives, to bring up their families, to have a few extras in the good days and to keep out of debt in the bad days. They have little in the way of fat savings to fall back on.
Those people are citizens of this country, entitled to their reasonable share of the national wealth. The £10 and £16 a week is all right for a start, but let us build on that. I want eventually to see a pension that provides not only for necessities but for indulgences as well.
§ 5.18 p.m.
§ Mr. W. Benyon (Buckingham)
It seldom falls to a Member with such meagre seniority as mine to follow two maiden speeches, both different but equally distinguished. The hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mrs. Colquhoun) referred to her predecessor, who was held in such great affection in all parts of the House. I am sure that she will be a worthy successor. The right hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. West) made a speech of eloduence and fervour of the kind we have come to expect from Ulster Members.
In a sense, it is appropriate that I should follow him because my great-grandfather was leader of the Conservative Party when both the Home Rule Bills were defeated in the nineteenth century. If he had been less successful, the right hon. Member would not be here today. I am sure that we shall hear a great deal from him in the future.
Like many others who have spoken in this debate, it is the measures which have been left out of the Gracious Speech that have significance for me, rather than those which are included. That is all to the good, because I believe that what this country needs today is the minimum of legislation and the maximum of good sensible, efficient administration. However, like Red Riding Hood, one detects the wolf lurking behind the grandmother's clothes. It is only a question of time, I beileve, before the disguise is shed.
We are talking about prices today, and I want to comment on those parts of the Gracious Speech that deal with the prices, and therefore the provision, of housing. It may be naive to say that but it is sad that it is not possible to reach a greater measure of agreement on the subject of housing between all parties in the House. Housing is essentially a long-term operation. 418 If we are to get the best out of the construction industry, if we are to get the best production and development of housing; stability, both economic and political, is needed.
That is especially true now, when we are experiencing one of those difficult periods, such as we have had in the past, in the building industry. We shall not achieve what we all desire—a reasonable home for everybody in the country at a price they can afford—unless we can get some stability in the industry. Perhaps we could all agree about that; certainly there have been signs of agreement from the Government benches.
But perhaps we shall also agree on three other housing matters. The first is the desire of the majority—not all, by any means, but the majority—to own their own homes. This is a matter to which all parties in the House have paid lip service. Secondly, we may agree that private finance will not provide, anyway in the foreseeable future, low-cost housing for rent. Therefore, the private, unfurnished rented sector will continue to diminish. Thirdly, I think it would be common ground that the cause of slums and bad housing generally is simply and solely the lack of finance. It does not matter whether the landlord is a council, a company or an individual; this basic fact applies.
In my constituency there is being built the new city of Milton Keynes. It is probably the largest single nationally directed and financed building operation in the country, with a target of 3,500 houses a year. This operation, which is going ahead successfully at the moment, is not threatened by any shortage of land; this is freely available. It is only marginally affected by shortages of building materials and components. It is the lack of mortgage finance which threatens the whole enterprise. When the plan was drawn up there was a large element of private housing; this is now having to be reviewed because there is simply not the finance available to enable people to buy houses in the city. Therefore, a far greater proportion is being taken up by rented accommodation and the whole balance of the city is being affected.
At the moment, as we have seen on the tape this afternoon, there is no input of funds whatever to the building 419 societies. In fact, there was a net outflow last month. If the Gracious Speech means what it says—that the Government wish to encourage home ownership in this country—finance must be the Minister's top priority.
I should like to pay tribute to another maiden speech. On the first day of this debate my hon. Friend the Member fox Melton (Mr. Latham) made a distinguished contribution on housing. Unless we give top priority, in a time of great stringency, to mortgage finance the whole building industry will severely contract, and when resources are as limited as they are now this must be first call on the Chancellor's resources.
In the light of this, perhaps I could consider quickly some of the other housing measures outlined in the Gracious Speech. The first is the projected repeal of the Housing Finance Act. We must await the Bill that the Government will eventually produce, but there has been sufficient indication already that the alternative will be pooled historic cost. This taken on its own will mean that the better-off tenant will pay less and the worse-off tenant will pay more unless—and this is the important aspect—the taxpayer pays more. Housing subsidies this year are running at just short of £300 million. How much will it be next year?
Secondly, there is the projected measure to protect furnished tenants from eviction. This is the one measure dealing with housing that I can see in the Gracious Speech which requires no Government expenditure. I am inclined to support it for one reason, and one reason only, that it will clear up the argument whether such action will lessen or increase the amount of such accommodation available. I think it will lessen it. Shelter, as everyone knows, thinks otherwise. It cannot be proved one way or the other until it is tried. We shall have to wait and see.
Thirdly, there will be measures to "encourage municipal ownership" This is a watered-down version of that contained in the manifesto that we debated at the hustings. What will it cost? If one is kind and takes a modest estimate of £5,000 per dwelling—and I think that is modest at the present time—the total could be large indeed. The real indictment 420 of this policy—incidentally, it requires no legislation and could be carried through immediately with the measures at the disposal of the Government—is that many housing authorities in the worst stress areas have large amounts of empty accommodation available awaiting modernisation. It is being borne in upon everybody that modernisation is a difficult process which requires special skills and management and that these are just not available at present. Councils should put their own house in order first before taking additional commitments.
Fourthly, there is the proposal to bring land required for development into public ownership. Here again a large amount of Government expenditure is involved, but perhaps the real fallacy of this policy—and again we shall have to await the White Paper—is the eventual disposal of the land that is compulsorily purchased.
Presumably local authorities which purchase land will not be able to develop it all themselves. Other developers will be brought in, and they will have to be restricted if one accepts what the Government says. It follows that the purchasers of the houses will also have to be restricted by some form of special lease, but what will happen then? Immediately, the price of all the 10 million existing freeholds will assume a greater value. One has to wait and see, but, in view of the Labour Party's attitude to leasehold enfranchisement, it seems that there will have to be a way of ensuring that these houses are eventually owned freehold, and they will then command the market price.
There are a number of other ways of dealing with the whole issue of high profits on land sales. My right hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Barber) outlined some of them before Christmas. My own preference is for a graduated system of capital gains tax which gives special concessions to local authorities.
These measures in the Gracious Speech appear to be a ragbag that has been put together with no proper thought. They will all require large amounts of public expenditure, but none of them, as far as I can see—and this is the real criticism of the Gracious Speech—will build one more house. This 421 is a recipe for decline, and those who will suffer are the very people whom the Labour Party purports to help.
§ 5.28 p.m.
§ Mr. Peter Doig (Dundee, West)
On only two matters do I agree with the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Ben-yon), and those are his congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mrs. Colquhoun) and the right hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. West) on their excellent maiden speeches and the way in which they delivered them. I agree with the hon. Member for Buckingham when he says that we look forward to hearing from them often in the future. I am sure that they will both be a great asset to the House.
The hon. Gentleman said that the Government should have a minimum of legislation and a maximum of good administration. How can there be good administration of bad legislation? There must first be good legislation, and then there will be good administration. The best administrator in the world cannot make a good job of administering bad legislation. That is the point from which we start. We therefore have to put through good legislation first and to follow that with good administration.
The hon. Gentleman went on to say—and here I agree with him—that more houses are required. The number of houses built by the previous Government fell considerably compared with the Labour Government's record.
The hon. Gentleman went on to say that there should be more owner-occupiers and that that must be given top priority. I agree with the former view, but to say that owner-occupiers should be given top priority is far fetched and would not be good administration. I doubt whether many people would quibble with the proposition that it is more necessary to give immediate increases to pensioners than to produce more owner-occupiers. The idea of giving top priority to producing more owner-occupiers is a poor one indeed. My opinion is that that objective should be fairly well down the list That does not mean that I am altogether opposed to the idea of owner-occupation but merely that it does not merit anything like top priority.
The right hon. Gentleman said that the lack of finance was the cause of the slump 422 in housebuilding. Surely that is nonsense when one recalls that the previous Government went in for expensive projects such as the Channel Tunnel, Maplin, and so on. To say that there was a lack of finance for building houses is sheer nonsense.
The hon. Gentleman appears to object to housing subsidies for council tenants. I was a council tenant at the time that I was treasurer of the city of Dundee, and I was therefore in a position to calculate exactly what my subsidy was from other ratepayers. It worked out at exactly £38 a year at that time.
§ Mr. Benyon
I said that subsidies this year were running at just under £300 million. If the Housing Finance Act is repealed and rebates are continued a higher rate of subsidy will be necessary, and I was questioning what that rate would be.
§ Mr. Doig
Such questions ought to be addressed to a Minister at Question Time, and the hon. Gentleman will get an exact answer. But I must tell him that if he puts his question at short notice he will not get an exact answer because it will not be possible to provide one.
As I was saying, as a council tenant I received a subsidy of £38 per year. Everyone seemed to object to my getting that money. As a result of pressure by the Press, when I became a Member of Parliament I was forced to buy a house of my own and become an owner-occupier.
I was surprised to discover that my subsidy—it was not called that; it was called a tax rebate, or remission but it was nevertheless a subsidy—amounted to not £38 but £100 a year. If I had bought a much more expensive house, my subsidy would have been greater. I bought a comparatively modest house at a time when prices and interest rates were low. All those factors influence the amount of remission. Despite having bought the house at a time of relatively low costs, my subsidy amounted to £100 per year.
If the hon. Gentleman considers the figures for the whole of Great Britain, he will find that under the previous Government—and presumably the same will apply under this Government—the total amount of money given by way of tax rebates to owner-occupiers exceeds the 423 total given in subsidies to council tenants. I cannot understand why the hon. Gentleman has the distorted idea that it is a bad thing to provide subsidies for council tenants but a good thing to provide tax remissions for owner-occupiers.
I do not know why the hon. Gentleman objects to the modernisation of houses. That is the cheapest way in which local authorities can provide good accommodation. It costs much less to modernise a sub-standard house than to build one. Surely the hon. Gentleman knows that.
The hon. Member then seemed to object to the control of land. I wonder why. The one thing which has inflated the price to owner-occupiers and local authorities is the speculation in land which has caused the price of building land to shoot up. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman seemed to take exception to the control of land.
I come now to the subject of prices. The Leader of the Opposition became Prime Minister in 1970 as the result of a campaign on prices more than on any other issue. There was no question then of his quoting world prices as being the cause of price increases, or anything else. He simply said that the then Labour Government had caused the increase in prices. The price increases which occurred under the Conservative Government were far larger than those which occurred under the previous Labour Government. It is not surprising that, because of the right hon. Gentleman's failure to handle the issue which brought him into power and to carry out his promises, this should be the issue which has put him out of power. I shall not list all the price increases. If anyone doubts them, I could give a list of the fantastic increases which occurred under the Conservative Government.
One of the scares which the Leader of the Opposition used in 1970 was that if the Labour Government stayed in power for another full term we would have a three-shilling loaf. That particularly interested me. I have been employed in the bakery trade all my life, with one of the largest bread manufacturers in this country. In 1970 the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition suggested that a simple method of applying Tory philosophy, by encouraging free enterprise, removing all Government 424 restrictions and allowing free competition, at a stroke, would keep prices down. But what happened? Prices rose at more than double the rate of those in the period about which he complained. After three and a half years of his Government we have already had the three-shilling loaf—not after five years.
The right hon. Gentleman is condemned by increases which his Government printed. He is also condemned by his own actions. Having propounded the theory that free competition and removal of Government controls over prices would reduce prices, he proceeded to reintroduce Government control over prices. He went further. He decided to appoint a Minister to try to hold back the increase in prices. After she had been in office for a period, no one noticed the difference. Prices continued to rise. Even the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition noticed that. He then appointed a senior Minister to the job. The right hon. Gentleman could hardly give him exactly the same job. The title was changed slightly. The new Minister was the Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs. But it was the same job. Although that Minister received much ballyhoo publicity, which lasted for about a month, he had no more effect on prices than had the first Minister.
The Leader of the Opposition finally admitted defeat for his policy by deciding that it was necessary to review pensions every six months. Why should he do that at the end of his term and at the start of an election period? Was it because of great concern for the pensioners? I do not think that that was the reason, because he did not express that concern until the election started. As a result of Labour pressure, the review period was reduced from two years to one year. No one, neither the then Opposition nor pensioners, asked for a six-monthly review. Why did the right hon. Gentleman do this at the start of the election period? There is only one possible explanation, and that is that he realised that he could not control prices so he settled for the fact that prices would continue to rise if he remained in power for as far as he could see into the future. What the right hon. Gentleman did not seem to see was that if it were necessary to review pensions every six months, the trade unions would soon decide that it 425 was necessary to review wages every six months, and for the same reason.
§ Mr. Benyon
It was in response to tremendous pressure from the Labour Party that the review period was reduced from two years to one year, but why was that not done during the whole of Labour's previous year's of office?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)
Order. The hon. Gentleman must refer to the right hon. Gentleman by his constituency.
§ Mr. Doig
The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition went on to say that this was all due to increased world prices. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Tay) has pointed out, prices rose much less in other countries. Prices rose faster in Britain than in any other country. But what led to all this trouble? The Leader of the Opposition will say that it was the demand for increases in wages by workers in this country. Why did these demands arise?
Let us consider the average worker. He gives money to his wife to run the home and to buy the messages. But she soon discovers that this money is not sufficient because prices are rising daily, rising at a rate which has never previously been seen. She nags him for more money, and that starts the process. The worker looks at the dividends of the big banks, the supermarkets which sell food and the big manufacturers, and he decides that they have all been making record profits. Even their chairmen have said so. It is this that causes the agitation in his mind. But then he picks up the report from the chairman of the company for which he works and suddenly discovers that that company has also made record profits. What does all this add up to? There is only one possible result. The worker asks for an increase in wages. That is bound to happen.
It has been shown by the two previous Governments that we cannot effectively control wages by legislation. There is only one other way to tackle the problem, and that is at the prices end, the end 426 which starts the agitation for increased wages. We can do that, and that is what we intend to do. It does not take a financial genius to know that banks, which raise their income by lending money and are forced by the Government to increase their interest rates, will make increased profits. I cannot believe that a Chancellor of the Exchequer, hard pressed for money from all sides, could not anticipate that simple fact. Even if he could not, it is bound to be obvious to his civil servants at the Treasury. Why did they not take steps to take this extra money, which the banks had done nothing to earn, and to put it to a better purpose through the Treasury?
The short paragraph dealing with prices in the Gracious Speech saysMeasures will be laid before you to establish fair prices for certain key foods, with the use of subsidies where appropriate; and to restrain price inflation.But that is not nearly good enough. The Government must do much better than that. It is true that no British Government can control an increase in prices that is put into effect by a foreign Government. As I have said, I have worked in the bakery trade, so I take wheat as an example. If there is a bad crop of wheat in one of the large wheat-producing countries in one year, the countries which have had a normal crop will decide that they can get increased profits through an increased demand, so they will raise the price. No British Government can do anything about that.
What happens after that? The previous Government allowed bakers to increase the price of bread on the excuse that it was necessary because of an increase in the world price of wheat, which was beyond the Government's control. The price went up, but did the previous Government check to see whether the increase was absolutely necessary, and when the world price of wheat returned to normal did the Government take steps to bring the price of bread down again?
I spent all my working life in the bakery trade. I have frequently seen price increases in bread, for reasons such as I have mentioned, but I have never seen bread prices come down again. This is a good reason for accepting the remedy proposed on this matter in the Gracious Speech. It is much better to give a Government subsidy to keep the price of 427 bread stablised, because when world prices return to normal the subsidy will be automatically stopped. There will be no need to pressurise bakeries in order to get prices down again, because the subsidy will be provided by the Government and will be removed as soon as world prices drop. This will be a much better system than those adopted in the past.
The Opposition suggest that this system would, in the long term, be the wrong way to deal with the problem, but I suggest that it would be the right way and the most effective and cheapest way, because prices would remain steady rather than go up, and the subsidy would disappear as prices dropped.
Everybody realises that it is necessary for the Government to have control over more than food prices. I first advocated in 1959, and later in 1966, that the Government should set up a Government costing department, which would have access to firms' books and would be able to find out whether proposed price increases, and the extent of those increases, were necessary. Advanced notice of proposed price increases should be required, as has been done in the past. It has been suggested that a Government costing department would be costly and would require a large force of civil servants, but this is far from the case. The department would merely have to investigate prices by means of a preliminary examination to decide whether fuller examination was necessary. This work could be done quickly, with a small staff.
§ Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler
Is that not precisely what the Price Commission, established by the last Conservative Government, seeks to do? The Commission investigates proposals for price increases and if they are not justified they are turned down flat, as has happened.
§ Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler
I scarcely see the point of the hon. Gentleman making heavy weather of the proposal, since it has already been enforced. Nothing 428 in the Gracious Speech will substantially alter the situation, as far as the House has yet been able to judge.
§ Mr. Doig
The hon. Gentleman should have listened carefully to what I said. I said that the Government should require advance notice of proposed price increases, as they had done previously. This was done not only under the previous Government, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, but also under the previous Labour Government.
We should not be satisfied with stopping unnecessary price increases. We ought to try to enforce price reductions where possible. Examples are easily ascertainable of firms which make improved profits. The Government costing department could investigate such firms and find on which items, or in which sections, record profits were being made. There could then be further investigation to find the amount of the excessive charge and the firm could be compelled to reduce it. That would be the way to bring down prices.
Just as it is not possible to control prices which have to go up because of outside influences, so it is not possible, seemingly, to control prices which should come down because of outside influences. There should be a Government costing department to carry out investigations in cases in which there are indications of record profits, exceptionally high increases in prices, or known improvements in methods of productivity where it would be reasonable to assume that prices could be reduced. Such investigations would stabilise prices across the board, even though there may be price variations among some individual items. If this were done, industrial troubles would largely disappear, because the cause of those troubles would have been removed.
We must also go in for long-term bulk buying, particularly of food. We should get out of the EEC if we are unable to renegotiate much better terms, and that would result in lower prices. We should also stop the hoarding of food, particularly hoarding for speculative profits, as occurred recently, and we ought to restore the value of the pound, as the last Labour Government did, by taking action to balance the country's books. Only when we secure the double effect of higher 429 prices for exports and paying less for imports shall we be on the way to stabilising the economy.
§ 5.53 p.m.
§ Mr. Geraint Howells (Cardigan)
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak so early in my parliamentary career and at such a vital time in the country's affairs. It is my privilege to represent the county of Cardigan, a county rooted in the finest traditions of Welsh life and culture. I am now breaking with one of its traditions as I am its first Member of Parliament for over 50 years who does not belong to the legal profession. I am a farmer, a true son of the soil, and proud of it.
There has been reference in the debate to the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service. As a practical farmer I pay tribute to the staff of the Ministry of Agriculture, who have given me sound advice in the past. I hold them in high esteem.
I also pay tribute to my predecessor, who made an honourable contribution to the working of the House and who gave sterling service to the constituency during the past eight years. I am sure that he will be missed by right hon. and hon. Members on the Government side. I hope that I may give equal service to my county and country. I urge those right hon. and hon. Members who have not visited Cardiganshire to do so. They will experience Welsh hospitality at its best. Right hon. and hon. Members may not have the opportunity of visiting the county this summer because we might be in the throes of another General Election—who knows?
Cardiganshire is a county of great scenic beauty, and the Welsh way of life flourishes. The majority of the population of the county speak Welsh, and provision is made for this in the county's educational facilities.
The county's record in education is second to none in the whole of Britain. Apart from the schools system, we also boast of two colleges of the University of Wales, at Aberystwyth and Lampeter, an agricultural college and a college of librarianship. The National Library of Wales is among our most revered institutions. In Cardiganshire we also have the Welsh Plant Breeding Station, one of the most renowned research establishments 430 in Europe, which brings benefit not only to this country but to the underdeveloped nations.
The average Cardiganshire man is a moderate man, who enjoys a reasonably good life in a largely unspoilt environment. His history over the centuries has been one of hardship, which has bred in him a radical streak, the desire to improve existing conditions. He puts great stress on the quality of life. His tradition too, rightly or wrongly, has made him wish for better things for his children than he himself was able to achieve.
The result has been the loss of many of our ablest children from the county to other centres where they can find an outlet for their talents. One of the strongest reasons for implementing the Kilbrandon Report's recommendations to set up a legislative parliament for Wales is the power such a parliament would have to establish Welsh assembly and government offices in mid-Wales, dealing with agriculture, tourism, afforestation and so on, this in its turn attracting back some of Cardiganshire's ablest people.
It often strikes me as ironical that Cardiganshire gives its children an excellent education, culminating in a range of higher education, only to find that at the end of the process there is no work in the county to offer them. There is a small number of light industries in Cardiganshire, but we need many more to keep our young people.
The basic industry in Cardiganshire is agriculture. The subject is naturally dear to my heart, and I am glad to see a reference to this extremely important industry in the Gracious Speech. However, I am somewhat disappointed not to have heard how the promised expansion is to be brought about.
I believe that the confidence and stability in farming must be restored without delay, and I urge the Minister, as a matter of priority, to submit a price review immediately guaranteeing adequate prices for farm produce. It is vitally important that the pig, dairy, sheep, wool and all other sectors of the livestock industry receive immediate help, because many farmers are in great difficulties. I suggest that the Minister immediately reintroduces grant aid for lime and slag at a higher rate than before so that productivity can be increased in 431 those sectors of the industry—an immediate injection of capital into the industry to be followed in due course by a strategic price review so that farmers in each sector of the industry can be free to plan ahead for up to five or ten years. The Liberals also advocate legislation to establish a land bank which would give the necessary capital at low interest rates to enable the young farmer to set himself up in farming.
One of the greatest problems in agriculture today is the rapid decline in the labour force. At least half the work force has left the land over the past few years. As past Governments have failed the industry, so the farmers have been unable to pay their workers adequately and consequently it is becoming more difficult to find the right stockmen, and particularly shepherds. The agricultural worker is among the worst paid in Britain, and the answer must be to give the farmer enough return for his product to pay those who work for him in an adequate fashion.
In my view, the Government should give more money for research into the development of marginal and hill land. Many thousands of acres in my constituency have great potential for production but because of lack of money, they are not being exploited. Farmers in such areas should be given every encouragment to develop this type of land. However, there are two schools of thought about the way it should be used. Some people come down on the side of recreation, but, in my view, because of the extreme seriousness of the food situation in this country, the use should be purely agricultural. We must get our priorities right. We need the food and I am convinced that production in hill and marginal land could be increased, not by 50 per cent. or even 100 per cent. but by as much as 200 per cent. over the next 10 years, given the right incentives and opportunities.
At the same time, I would not wish to keep away the many thousands of visitors to my county. Tourism is another important industry there. I suggest the setting up of small parks of between 20 and 30 acres by the new local authorities to cater for the needs of the town and city dwellers who visit and enjoy the Welsh countryside at its best. Immediate help is 432 also required for horticulture if we are to maintain this necessary source of food supply.
One of the biggest problems at the moment is the rocketing price of fuel, which has risen by about 300 per cent. in the last year. I hope that something can be done to relieve such pressure on agriculture.
The Gracious Speech promises similar encouragement to maximum production by the fishing industry, and it could be helpful to know by what means that can be done. Will there be incentives? Will the White Fish Authority be allowed supplements to its training fund? Is money to be spent on research both into fish stocks and fish farming?
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has to shoulder a tremendous amount of responsibility—too much, in my opinion. He has to look after the interests of both producers and consumers. I believe that the time has now come to separate these two responsibilities. Welsh Liberals also advocate that a Minister of State for Welsh agriculture should be appointed to safeguard, in Brussels, the interests of Welsh farmers. I also urge the Government to give a direct grant to the Welsh Agricultural Export Council so that it can exploit the potential markets for Welsh agricultural products abroad and attract overseas buyers. What it all comes to in the end is co-operation and understanding between Government, producer and housewife.
Too often the general public imagine that subsidies are purely for the benefit of the producers, namely, the farmers, the fishermen and the horticulturists. However, the aim is to increase production so that the consumer does not have to pay excessive prices brought about by world food shortages.
§ 6.6 p.m.
§ Mr. Thomas Torney (Bradford, South)
I pay tribute to the excellent speech which we heard from the hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Howell). His eloquence is typical of the Welsh people. I am sure that the House is all the better for his presence. I am certain that we shall be hearing much more of him in future, and that he will have many opportunities to push the cause of Welsh agriculture.
433 I now turn my attention to the speech of the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior). It seemed that some feeling of relief and some air of abandon had come into his speech. I am sorry that he is not here to listen to my remarks. It was obvious that the cares of office and power had gone. That was the only way in which I could possibly explain to myself the flippancy with which he treated the serious matter of the supply and the price of the nation's food. To me that is a real problem.
I can understand some members of the previous Government not understanding the gravity of the problem of the nation's food so well as my right hon. and hon. Friends. That is because food is such a vital part of the expenditure of the low-paid workers and those with fixed incomes. I can understand that members of the previous Government do not understand the problem of making ends meet and of making the money last so that people can buy the essentials for their family. They have not known what it is to struggle, as have some of my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself, to buy essentials in order to keep body and soul together.
A 53 per cent. increase in the nation's food bill does not matter very much if a person has a large and real income. It was with some degree of astonishment that I saw the right hon. Gentleman pointing his finger at the Government benches as if it was the Labour Party that had been in control for three and a half years, and not the Conservatives. I found it difficult to understand that the right hon. Gentleman could believe that the common agricultural policy had no bearing on the matter. The right hon. Gentleman referred to our manifesto and spoke about what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had said in a television broadcast. I never had the pleasure of watching that broadcast, because I was busy electioneering.
When the right hon. Gentleman was talking about those matters his memory must have been terribly short. For three and a half years his Government were in office, in which time the price of the nation's food rose by 53 per cent. That is nothing to be amused about, but most of the Opposition Front Bench seemed to be very amused when the right hon. Gentleman was speaking. An increase 434 of 53 per cent. is tremendous. Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that the common agricultural policy had no bearing on that increase?
I readily recognise that world prices have a bearing on the prices which we must pay in the shops for food and for anything else which we must buy. However, there are some positive factors that have had a bearing in pushing up prices to a higher level than the world price of certain commodities. The headlong rush of the Leader of the Opposition into the Common Market was such a factor. I cannot believe, had the Labour Party been in Government—despite the jibes that are often made at my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister by Opposition Members about his ideas on the Common Market—that my right hon. and hon. Friends would have ever accepted such terms of entry, which have had such a disastrous effect on the price of food. It was the Leader of the Opposition who inflicted those terms on the British people by quickly pushing us with guillotines and other pressures into the Common Market.
Let us analyse the situation. It is all right for the right hon. Member for Lowestoft to talk as he did, but he knows as well as anyone else that the common agricultural policy means taxes upon our food. That is a simple factor, which is understood by all Members. All Members will agree that, despite all the efforts of various Governments to ensure that more food is grown in Britain, and to expand the nation's food industry, it is clear that even in our wildest dreams we cannot hope to produce the bulk of the food which we require. It is clear that we must import it from abroad.
It seems that the common agricultural policy is designed as a protectionist policy for the French farmer, with little consideration or thought for the British housewife, the British working people, or working people anywhere in Europe. It is designed only for the protection of the French farmer. It behoves my right hon. Friends to see that the situation is quickly altered. We should get back to buying the nation's food in the world's cheapest markets. I do not accept that the Governments of Australia, New Zealand and Canada have turned their backs on us. If they are beginning to do 435 so it is because of the despair and frustration caused by the policies assumed by the previous Government, including the common agricultural policy. I can understand that they see no future in continuing to bother about our little island.
I am equally certain that if my right hon. Friend makes the correct approaches to the Commonwealth countries we shall once again be able to buy our food in the cheapest markets of the world. No one, in his wildest dreams—I am not in a fantasy world like the right hon. Member for Lowestoft—imagines that whatever my right hon. Friend can do it will wipe out the 53 per cent. increase in the price of our food which has obtained since the previous Government came to power in July 1970, but it may well have the effect of bringing prices down a bit, or at least stabilising the situation.
As things have been going in the past three and a half years there has been no hope at all for the British housewife. Apart from food taxes, which the French insist we must pay to protect their farmers from the cheaper food we can buy outside the Market, there is the other utter stupidity of the intervention boards, again giving great protection to the French farmer at the expense of the British housewife and taxpayer. We pay both ways. We all know that under the capitalist economy when there is a shortage and demand is high, as is the case with feeding stuffs, prices rise. Under the old-fashioned capitalist economy, when there was a glut prices went down.
Let the right hon. Gentleman explain what logic there can possibly be in a situation in which, when there is a glut of a commodity, the intervention boards step in, hoard the surplus and even destroy it so as to maintain the prices of essential foodstuffs. We all remember the French butter scandal. The Market had to sell it wherever it could outside at the cheapest possible price. It was sold to the Russians. What happened? The French farmer still had to be paid his price, and the difference between that price and the price at which it was sold to the Russians was made up by the taxpayers of the Common Market.
We had to make a considerable contribution from Government funds to offset the difference. This is stupid economics.
436 It is nonsensical. Let the right hon. Member for Lowestoft—I am glad to see that he has just returned to the Chamber—explain that to me. What sense or logic can there be in such a system when the housewife pays the increased price in the shop and the taxpayer foots the bill through taxation?
In the last Parliament I mentioned another strange phenomenon of Common Market policy The price charged for a commodity throughout the Common Market is based upon the price of the production of the most inefficient—the people who produce by the most old-fashioned methods and whose costs are therefore high. Prices for the entire Common Market are fixed with reference to the inefficient producer. Then there is a tax, in addition, to protect such people from imported goods.
The best illustration of this stupid Common Market policy is the simple orange. Oranges are produced in the Common Market only in Sicily, which is probably a backward part of Italy. They are produced inefficiently. We take less than half of 1 per cent. of our total orange imports from Italy. The bulk of our imports come from places such as Israel, Africa and Spain. The price we pay for oranges imported from outside the Common Market is based upon the price of the inefficiently produced Italian orange. As a result of this pernicious tax, we shall be paying over the odds for all the oranges we import from other countries. This applies to all other foods.
Having dealt my blows, good-naturedly but firmly, to the right hon. Gentleman—we are all protagonists here —I come to my right hon. and hon. Friends who are dealing with agriculture and the problem of prices. This is not a subject that will wait. I realise that we have an unusual House, with no party having an overall majority. There are problems in getting legislation through. I believe that there is enough common sense in the House to enable the Government to introduce radical policies that will reduce or stabilise food prices. I appeal to my right hon. Friend quickly to deal with this Common Market question—to go to Brussels and say, "We shall not tolerate the absolute injustice of the common agricultural policy. We must go back to no taxes on food and to buying our food in the cheapest 437 markets in the world." If my right hon. Friend does that and does it quickly, I believe that we shall have a great deal of support from all parts of the House.
§ 6.23 p.m.
§ Mr. Michael Ancram (Berwick and East Lothian)
I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me to make my maiden speech at such an early stage in this Parliament. It is with a great respect and awe for the traditions and history of this House that I do so. I am grateful, also, for the opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor, Mr. John P. Mackintosh. He is a man of great ability, with a great knowledge of the democratic institutions of this country. He will long be remembered in the constituency which I now represent for the hard, diligent and conscientious way in which he attended to his constituents for the eight years that he represented them. He is also well-remembered and well-liked by hon. Members. I hope that they will all join me in wishing him well in the future.
I have the honour to represent a constituency which could well be described as a microcosm of the country. It contains 56,000 electors and comprises a majority of the facets of Scottish life. Although it has no coal mines, it contains several mining communities, which reflect well the problems and aspirations of the coal mining industry. It has a thriving fishing industry, but one very conscious of and sensitive to rising costs, especially the rising costs of fuel. As a vital part of our food industry it rightly looks to the Government for assistance.
Berwickshire and East Lothian has also a growing tourist industry with a great potential for increasing the prosperity of the area, consisting as it does of some of the most beautiful countryside and coastline in the Scottish Lowlands and the borders. I sincerely hope that the commercial value of the environment in my constituency will be kept firmly in mind by the Secretary of State for Scotland when he has to decide upon detailed planning applications for the construction of nuclear power stations within the constituency.
Over the past few years Berwickshire and East Lothian has developed industrially, mainly in terms of light and specialised industries, which have been successful in reversing the previous trends of depopulation and unemployment. There 438 has been created over the past few years—I say this without complacency—the basis for a stable local economy but, at a time of economic difficulty as there is at present, such industries are the most vulnerable, and I hope that the Government will make strenuous efforts to cushion them from any stringent policies that they may adopt.
The constituency is also a rural and agricultural one, and it is on that subject that, with the House's indulgence, I shall speak. Before I do so there is one matter on which I hope to receive an assurance from the Minister. On Tuesday the Prime Minister while speaking on the Government's plans for oil referred to assisting passenger transport services within rural areas through adjusted selling prices for petrol and diesel oils. Be that as it may, having recognised the particular needs for such areas and the disadvantages under which they exist in terms of transport, would it be possible for the Government immediately to give financial support towards improving the public transport system in such areas, at least to meet the present needs?
I come now to the question of agriculture. It appears that hon. Members on both sides of the House are concerned about the position of low-wage groups, among whom farm workers must be a comparative example. Their position needs to be improved, and I had hoped—and still hope—that they might be assisted by the relativities machinery of the Pay Board. But farm workers work in a fractionalised industry, where each man ultimately depends on the viability of the farm on which he works. Their relatively low position is now threatening a shortage of such labour, which in turn could severely threaten home food production unless the relative position of farm workers is recognised immediately. Of one thing we can be certain: the betterment of a farm worker's income ultimately depends on the economic viability of the farm on which he works, and many sectors of the farming industry, certainly in Scotland, are facing severe economic difficulties.
We have heard in the debate that horticulturists, and especially those in the glasshouse sector of the industry, are threatened and are already suffering from unpredictable rises in the price of fuel. I was grateful to hear from the Minister 439 that the Government intend to take speedy action on this matter, and I hope that action will indeed be speedy, for the situation is urgent.
Pig producers, too, are facing an impossible position. During the election campaign the previous Government announced that they had placed the problem of pig farmers under urgent review. I urge the new Government to complete this review with all possible speed before this sector of the industry severely cuts back on production. Pig farmers simply cannot go on producing at a loss. In my area that loss is recognised to be about £5 per pig. No producer can carry on in this way. If pig producers are driven to cut production that must inevitably increase our national import bill.
Urgent measures are also needed to assist beef producers. They are getting between £2 and £3 per cwt. less than the suggested price last year. Apart from any question of end price support, there are more immediate ways in which help can be given to mitigate some of the producers' costs.
Despite any difficulties arising from our membership of the EEC, I hope that the Government will review the position of subsidies on fertilisers and lime, as suggested by the hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Howells). Retention of these subsidies—in particular, the subsidy on lime—would be of general assistance to most of the farmers in Scotland. It would help them to restrict their costs to a level at which they could hope to see a reasonable return on their farming operations.
I also urge the Government to consider the possibility of making cheap money available to farmers for expansion projects. It appears to be generally agreed by hon. Members that expansion in the agricultural industry is necessary and, indeed, that is made clear in the Gracious Speech. But that can be achieved only by providing incentives to farmers to expand their production. Although it involves an apparently debased word, that can be done only by encouraging farmers' profits. I hope that the Government, in the national interest, will now determine to ensure the profitability and the security of the agriculture industry as a whole.
§ 6.33 p.m.
§ Mr. Max Madden (Sowerby)
My constituency is well known for its industrial contribution, particularly in textiles, and more recently in mechanical engineering. It is also well known for its natural beauty, which is to be seen in the Pennine Park and the wild moorland which is enjoyed by many of my constituents and people from Leeds, Manchester and elsewhere.
My constituency is also renowned politically, as it was represented in this House for nearly 25 years by Douglas Houghton, whose public and political service, nationally and locally, was widely recognised and much appreciated. His distinguished career, which started in the trade union movement before he came to this House and to Government, was capped by his long and able chairmanship of the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Many of my constituents, like me, will welcome the key provisions contained in the Gracious Speech. Pensioners, who make up a large proportion of my constituents, anxiously await an increase in their pensions. I hope that the Government will introduce the increase as soon as possible and that they will take full note of the confident statements made in the Conservative manifesto that pensions could be increased twice yearly. The machinery for paying pensions needs to be improved, so that pension increases can be paid as quickly as possible after the necessary legislation has been passed. I hope that the Government will ensure that Departments are geared to pay the pension increase quickly.
Tenants—both council and private—in my constituency will welcome the freeze which has been imposed on rents. This will make a major contribution to the fight against the rising cost of living.
Both sides of industry in my constituency welcome the repeal of the Industrial Relations Act, which has demonstrated the utter folly of such legislation. The attempt to shackle the unions has been totally defeated, and I hope that no Government will ever again propose legislation of this sort.
Everyone will welcome the Government's attempts to fight rising prices. Housewives and other shoppers need help. They need protection and information to 441 fight rising prices. They need clear information in every shop, showing the fair price of every commodity on sale. They also need machinery on the ground to enable them to take action against any abuses. In this connection, local authorities can be used most effectively in policing price increases. I wish to see the bureaucratic obstacles which have been placed in the way of local authorities swept away as early as possible.
Working mothers do not have time to shop around, as they are often urged to do by Opposition Members. They are angry that identical items cost widely different amounts in shops only yards apart. They are annoyed at the artificial competition in so many high streets. The names above the shops may be different, but they are owned by fewer and fewer large combines. Working mothers are angry at the vast advertising promotion used by manufacturers who produce wider and wider ranges of products. Much advertising expenditure could be reduced. Working mothers are outraged also at recent statements that if price controls were imposed the ability of retailers to increase the salaries of shop assistants and efforts to modernise their premises would be inhibited. It is seen to be nonsense. We know that through weak trade union organisation shop assistants have received some of the lowest wages paid in Britain.
Many of my constituents will welcome negotiations to obtain better Common Market terms and the fact that the ultimate choice of staying in or leaving will rest entirely with the people.
Industry will welcome the commitment to expand and give high priority to regional development, which must be accelerated in my constituency if we are to stem the flow of young people from our area to other and more prosperous parts of the country. Large-scale sustained investment is needed in industry. We need more jobs, and better jobs. We need the better pay and conditions which will lead to more young people living and working within our own area.
After telling us that the Tories and Liberals were riding an electoral tidal wave which would annihilate the Labour Party, upon the basis of opinion polls which have again been found to be erroneous at election time, the media are 442 now warning anyone who still cares to listen that the Government must act meekly if they are to survive. I trust that the Government will not be deflected by such warnings from our friends in the media. They must listen to the people of Britain—a much more reliable source than the instant pundits who so often have the advantage of the media.
At the election, the electorate rejected anti-democratic legislation and policies that made the worst-off even poorer. It rejected Government arrogance and confrontation, and the idiotic argument that the miners were holding Britain to ransom and the election was about moderation versus extremism. It rejected failure. It rejected discredited men and policies.
The Labour Government must now fulfil the programme they have before them and demonstrate that they believe in Socialist priorities, in fairness, and in social justice. I urge the Government to keep faith with the people who elected them, and to keep faith with the working people of Britain.
§ 6.39 p.m.
§ Mr. Robert Boscawen (Wells)
It is a pleasure and an honour to congratulate two hon. Members, one from each side of the House, on making their maiden speeches. I do so knowing full well that their predecessors were popular and highly respected men.
The previous Member for Berwick and East Lothian, Mr. John Mackintosh, was exceptionally well informed on all agricultural matters, and I am glad to hear that his successor is, too. I am sure that the new hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Ancram) will be a worthy successor and Member of the House.
The hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Madden) spoke with great clarity, lucidity and forcefulness, as befits the successor to such a deeply respected man as the former chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party. I am sure that he will have a long and successful career in this House. Indeed, I believe that both hon. Members will represent their constituents extremely well.
My constituents will wish me to give their congratulations to the new Minister of Agriculture, who opened this debate for the Government, and who 443 represents the most important Ministry of all to a large number of people. My constituents are deeply concerned about the present condition of the livestock side of the industry. Extremely serious situations affect pig producers, beef producers, those whose livelihoods depend on glasshouse production, and horticultural producers who are dependent not on glass but on growing their produce in the open and getting early products to the market at the right time to get a fair price for them. Many individuals in my constituency have been and are in considerable difficulties as a result of the phenomenal increase in the world price of feeding stuffs that we have to import.
We wish to give our backing to strengthen the hand of the Minister in getting a fair return in both Brussels and this country for our livestock producers. It is sometimes not understood that a short-term pinch-penny attitude towards agricultural producers will in the long term do most harm to the housewife and the consumer in this country.
Many hon. Members have said that we are suffering from Common Market prices. I suggest that we are suffering as much from our home producers not being given sufficient confidence and opportunities to expand their produce, particularly in the period of the previous Labour Government. Had our beef production expanded as fast in those years as in the years since, we should have had an even better record of prices compared with overseas prices.
Hon. Members opposite have said that food prices have risen 53 per cent. in the past three and a half years, and that that is a terrible situation. I suggest that if the agricultural industry had continued to stagnate as it did when they were in office, the figure would have been a great deal higher. It would now be at the world price, which represents an increase of about 80 per cent. Let us not hear so much crying about the difficulties that the housewife and the producers have had in this country in the past three-and-a-half years.
The Minister of Agriculture faces difficult problems in giving a fair return to the producer in an endeavour to expand home production. We wish him 444 well. He will have our backing if he brings about a rate of expansion of 4 per cent. per year, particularly in livestock, in this country.
I turn to the important responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection, whom we welcome to the Treasury Bench. There was a lot of loose talk during the General Election and since about cutting margins in the retail trade, especially in the retail grocery trade, and suggestions that it would be easy to cut prices if profit margins in the retail grocery business were cut.
I am sure that the right hon. Lady knows only too well that there is a large sector of the retail grocery trade in the hands of very small businesses, mostly one-man or one-man-and-his-wife businesses, whose profit margins are their wages and are not at all unreasonable. If there is to be a cut of any extent in their profit margins—and I see that a cut of 10 per cent. is suggested—it will be reflected by a substantial cut in those individuals' earnings or their wages. In any case, they are having to accept a lower rate of profit than the bigger houses simply because they cannot buy in bulk in the way that the bigger houses can. So I hope sincerely that the right hon. Lady, in looking at profit margins of the small retail traders, will not try to squeeze them out of business.
In a rural area such as my constituency, such traders are vitally necessary. With the lack of rural buses, the complete lack of rail services, and the higher cost of petrol it will be even more difficult for those people who live in out-of-the-way villages to travel to the supermarkets in the nearby towns. They desperately need the continuation of the small grocery shops, and those small grocery shops have to earn enough to live. Let us hear a little less about the massive profits being tucked under the counter by the small retail grocery businesses. I do not believe they exist. I hope that the right hon. Lady will give these traders encouragement, because they give a good service to the nation and they should not be squeezed out because of some of the wild election talk that we heard in the past few weeks.
I regret some of the omissions from the Queen's Speech. I regret that nothing was said about the future of the Social 445 Security Act passed by the previous Government last year. I regret that nothing was said about the tax credit scheme.
Quite a lot was said about increasing pensions and supplementary benefits. I, for one, welcome steps to ensure that the pensioners and those in need of protection get a fair share of any expanding prosperity. But there are also those who are just above the level of the supplementary pension and who do not benefit from it. They are extremely badly off and get no benefit from the reduction in taxes. It is exceedingly difficult to help them. Many of them are elderly widows living on small fixed occupational pensions, most of them living alone, but they are above the limit at which they can receive any national assistance or supplementary benefit. They are faced with an erosion of their standard of living. In many cases they are faced with swingeing increases in rates. They are finding it extremely difficult to live. These people would have been helped by the introduction of the tax credit scheme, but there is nothing about it in the Queen's Speech.
For varying reasons Government supporters do not like the tax credit scheme. but, if they are not going on with it, I should like to see something put in its place to help those who are just above the limits of the means-tested benefits that now exist. The Labour Party has suggested no way in which we can help these people. It is one of the grave omissions from the Gracious Speech. I should have liked to hear the right hon. Lady who is responsible now for social security answer those points.
But in the main, my constituents, so many of whom are engaged in agriculture, are anxious to see that the new Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries is able to use a strong hand on their behalf in order that they get a fair return for the great work that they are doing for our prosperity and for this country.
§ 6.51 p.m.
§ Dr. M. S. Miller (East Kilbride)
I should like to add my congratulations to the maiden speakers whom we have heard today. I cannot give them greater commendation than to say that they are taking their fitting place in the House of Commons having made speeches which are on a par with what we have come to except from hon. Members.
446 It is not uncommon—it is almost ritualistic—for Government Members to eulogise a Gracious Speech. I suppose that this Gracious Speech is no exception. But I submit that this Queen's Speech has an element which places it in a unique category. It is the working blueprint of a minority Government, the first minority Government for 50 years, and it has to be commended for its boldness, notwithstanding the problems that its proposers must face. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and his Ministers for choosing a difficult path, the harder way of change, rather than embarking upon the easier course of consensus. It deserves to succeed, and I believe that the country sees it that way.
I have had the honour of attending four Gracious Speeches—I say "attending" because a Gracious Speech is not merely a dissertation to which one listens with a degree of polite attention. As public representatives, we are involved in it and are dealing with the future of our country. In our own humble fashion we are attempting to shape it, and each of us has a rôle to play.
But this occasion sees me having the honour to represent a brand new constituency, the constituency of East Kilbride, an area that includes the spectacularly successful new town of East Kilbride itself, the warm and closely-knit community of Blantyre, with its old mining affiliations, the beautiful ancient town of Strathaven and the districts of Chapelton and Busby. It is interesting to note that each of the main constituents of East Kilbride has made an invaluable contribution to Scotland, to the United Kingdom and, indeed, to the world community. Strathaven was the home for the greater part of his life of that wonderful, world-famous personality of the stage, Sir Harry Lauder. Blantyre was the birthplace of David Livingstone, whose African explorations have had far-reaching consequences. It was in the little village of East Kilbride that the famous anatomist brothers, William and John Hunter, first saw the light of day.
Since my profession is similar to that of the Hunters, it may be appropriate for me to embark upon a somewhat curtailed anatomical dissection of the Gracious Speech. Almost every paragraph contains 447 aspects of an overall plan which, if properly implemented, would sow the seeds of change and would benefit our whole community. But I confine my remarks to a few points.
The pledge to take effective action to curb the crippling price escalation is right and fair and must command wide support. I take issue with the hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Boscawen) and would urge my right hon. Friend not to be put off by his concern for the small trader, no matter how legitimate it may be. We are not concerned with the small trader in this respect. In the past the large co-operative movement did a wonderful job in attending to the needs of people in remote areas such as he described. They did it in the past and they do it now. In the 1930s, when times were very difficult, the co-operative movement often came to the rescue.
I urge my right hon. Friend to pursue the course that she intends to take. We are after the large food-producing firms which have made 50 per cent., 60 per cent., 100 per cent. and sometimes 120 per cent. more profit last year than the year before and continued to increase their profits at a time when the country was in difficulty and when other people found it hard to make ends meet.
There must be a much closer scrutiny of the extra large profits which the food companies make. I am not persuaded by the argument that profit margins of that sort are necessary for the furtherance of the firm and that they make very little difference to retail prices. One or two pennies make a difference, and if a similar reduction is made next year, it will not take long before people realise that something is being done about the escalation of prices.
During the election my right hon. Friend repeated many times that no one on this side of the House believed that the price of world food commodities was the fault of the previous Government. No one said that the previous Government were to blame for high world food prices. I made that clear not only in speeches but in my election address—the one communication that goes to every elector in the constituency.
But what the previous Government can be accused of is neglect to act in spheres over which they had control.
§ Dr. Miller
I referred to the fact that the previous Government could not be blamed entirely for the rises in prices which were due to the rise in world prices. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman would expect me to do more than that. It was up to him to apportion the, exact amounts, and none of us accepts the figure that he puts on it.
On food prices, two matters have considerable bearing. The level of food production in this country—previous speakers have stressed this, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture is seized of it—must be increased, and I should like to see my right hon. Friend's proposals for achieving this. The second aspect of prices, an extremely important one, is house rents. These are highly significant considerations in ordinary people's lives, and the Government should be congratulated on their decision to freeze rents for this year.
It is time that we forgot the idea that housing must be profitable. Housing contains a large element of social benefit, and where housing subsidies are necessary they must be given. Under the last Government, who were noted for presiding over a period of increases, there was also a decrease—not to their credit but to their shame. I refer to local authority house building; in Scotland there was a 50 per cent. reduction in the number built.
A previous speaker mentioned the difficulties of building societies, and I appreciate them. I think "building society" is a misnomer. They are money-lending societies. They do not build anything, and, as far as I can see, having studied this subject, we could do without them. I do not see why local authorities cannot act as agencies to provide money for this purpose. After all, they build the houses. I see no reason why they should not take over the whole sphere of money lending for house purchase Some local authorities do this to a considerable extent.
449 May I mention the Industrial Relations Act, because this has a bearing on prices? I do not think any piece of legislation passed by the last Government has caused so much trouble as that Act. I made some calculations of the amount of money it cost us, and even in terms of days lost it came to near £250 million a year. This could affect prices. I am not enamoured of claims that are now being made by the Opposition that we can always amend the Act. The chance to amend it existed when we spent many hours, night after night, trying to get one little amendment accepted. The then Government refused, and belatedly during the election were willing—or so they said—to accept an amendment.
I turn now to pensions. Of course, the increase is welcome. Indeed, it is overdue. I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mrs. Colquhoun) that we must not rest smugly on this achievement, good as it is. Pensioners have earned the right to a reasonable share of the country's wealth and it is right that their income should keep in step with the incomes of industrial workers.
No debate on prices can fail to take account of our Common Market membership. I know that it has already been mentioned, but I say this: whatever one's views are about that momentous decision, whether or not one agrees that we should be in the Market, surely it cannot be denied that the people of this country should have the right to say now whether we should remain in the Market or get out.
Louis Heren in today's edition of The Times makes some rather snide criticisms of Dr. Kissinger. The object of these is to drive a wedge between Britain and the United States so that there should be a Common Market plug. I think that the implications of this kind of writing by an important journalist should be resisted by my right hon. Friends.
Finally I mention that part of the Gracious Speech which deals with the Kilbrandon report. The subject of representation and devolution must be approached in an atmosphere devoid of panic, complacency or hasty judgment. Yet there is an element of urgency in it. There is a stirring in Scotland, as in other 450 parts of Britain and in many parts of the world. People everywhere want to be consulted. They want to have some right in saying what goes on in their own affairs. It would be wise to forestall demands which could be disastrous for everyone by examining carefully proposals for meaningful devolution. I think that a Scottish assembly with considerable powers would meet the requirements, but it must be an assembly with teeth and it must not be at the expense of Scottish representation at Westminster.
I have no truck with the wild hysterical demands of the Nationalists. A separate Scotland would create more problems than it would solve. For example, a citizen of Strathaven, Oban, Renfrew or Selkirk or somewhere in the Highlands or Islands of Scotland could easily find himself as remote from a Government in Edinburgh as from a Government in Westminster.
I am convinced that the vast majority of the Scottish people do not want a separate Scotland, with frontiers, customs controls, passports and all the paraphernalia associated with completely separate nationhood. I am equally convinced that they want their Government to be less remote. That is not unnatural; it is merely in keeping with a much more widespread similar desire. That fact must be faced not because of the demands of a few fanatics but because, having examined the position, we feel that it is right.
This comfortable, cosy little world which some people have been inhabiting has suffered a series of painful shocks in recent years. These are specific manifestations of a general process which has been going on for a much longer time. The world is changing, and proposals in a Gracious Speech must take account of that.
I commend my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for a speech which makes a good beginning. I am confident that it will command the support of the House, and I ask my right hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench to take the tone from my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Torney), whose speech was one of exact wisdom in respect of many of the problems which beset us. The Government could do no better than to take his clarion call for 451 the near future—"Do not be fainthearted. The people of this country are with you"
§ 7.9 p.m.
§ Mr. D. E. Thomas (Merioneth)
I thank both the House and hon. Members individually for the warm welcome extended to me as the new Member for Merioneth. It is a particular privilege to be called to address the House by such a distinguished occupant of the Chair, who has such close links with Wales and who has so graciously enabled me and a number of my Welsh-speaking colleagues to take the oath of allegiance in Welsh as well as in English. We are very grateful for that.
I am aware that in Mr. William Edwards I succeed a popular Member of the House who, in eight years, made many friends both inside and outside the Chamber through his varied interests, in the legal profession and in other spheres. With his legal expertise he was able to serve his constituents effectively in advising them on matters about which I, as someone who was previously involved in adult education, will have to rely on the advice of learned colleagues.
As I take my place to represent Merioneth, I am conscious of the historical tradition of political representation for the constituency. Although Merioneth has the smallest electorate in Wales—I do not want to stress that fact too much, in case I make myself an unwitting victim of redistribution—it has sent varied personalities of different political allegiances to Westminster. Among my predecessors I can name a respected Labour peer and an impressive line of Liberal Members. At one time we were even represented by a Tory—but that was before universal suffrage.
Among the most distinguished Members who have represented the constituency was the Chief Whip of the Liberal Party in the heyday of Liberalism, the 1890s—Thomas Edward Ellis. One of his early dreams was the creation of an independent Welsh party in the House which would press for an elected assembly for Wales, with legislative powers. That was 80 years before the Royal Commission on the Constitution was initiated. I am sure, therefore, that hon. Members will pardon the ironic chuckle that came from this bench when, in the Gracious 452 Speech, we heard that the Government are to initiate discussions in Wales about constitutional changes. Devolution has been an issue in Welsh politics for 80 years. We believe that 80 years of discussion is more than adequate. That is why we want a firm commitment that the Government will introduce legislation on the lines of the Kilbrandon Commission majority report within the lifetime of this Parliament.
The Independent Welsh Party about which Tom Ellis dreamed now exists. At the moment it has a membership of only two, but wherever two hon. Members are gathered together there is a parliamentary party. Such a party must have its officers. After a lapse of 75 years, the tradition of a Chief Whip representing Merioneth has been revived.
My constituency is mainly rural, with half a dozen small towns, mainly market towns, and service centres. The largest is the old industrial slate quarrying town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. The economic and social decline of Blaenau over the last 30 years must have few parallels throughout the United Kingdom. Its population has decreased by half in one generation. Blaenau urgently needs an influx of new manufacturing industry to give it a more secure economic base and to prevent the further drain of young lifeblood from the community. The people of Blaenau Ffestiniog and the other old industrial towns of Gwynedd welcome the commitment in the Gracious Speech to give high priority to the stimulation of regional development and employment.
My only question concerns the way in which that may be effectively done. The urgent priority is to set up the machinery for growth. The pages of strategic plans for improving the economic position of rural Wales would stretch from here to Dolgellau. We need a national economic development authority to put a growth centre strategy into effect.
Apart from the small manufacturing centres, another significant source of employment in my constituency is in the public sector, particularly in electricity generation and water conservation. Both are resources which massively benefit manufacturing industry outside the area.
Seventy per cent. of Merioneth lies within the Snowdonia National Park, and 453 much additional income is derived from tourism. The increasing pressures for recreation in the countryside, however, are creating environmental and social problems in rural areas. The future shape of tourism, therefore, must be carefully monitored and controlled.
I have mentioned the need for new manufacturing industry and for the balanced development of tourism. I am concerned also that the traditional industry of the rural areas, namely, agriculture, shall be maintained and developed. That is why I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I welcome the commitment in the Gracious Speech to encourage maximum economic production of food by the farming industry. However, there are certain specific measures, in both the short and longer term, which I submit are necessary for the continued development of the industry.
Agriculture is vital to the well being of the British countries for two reasons, first, because it is essential in these critical times to increase home food production, and second, because agriculture provides a stable productive form of employment in the rural areas. Those twin criteria of high productivity and high employment generation are met by the pattern of intensive family farming in medium-size units of over 400 standard man days, providing work for a farmer and his family. The medium-size family farm is the basic unit of agriculture in most areas of Wales. Ensuring the continuation of that pattern must be the aim of any comprehensive agricultural policy.
Some of the recent economic difficulties encountered by the industry have come about as a result of the massive escalation in the prices the farmer has to pay for feeding stuffs. I appreciate that the doubling of the average price per ton of feed wheat, the trebling of the price of soya bean meal and so on, are mainly due to world shortage of protein and cereal feeding stuffs. However, I believe that we need a flexible system to meet crises of this kind and the threat that they pose to the profitability of the beef, milk and particularly pig producers.
This problem could be met by introducing a system of price supplements to be payable as deficiency payments or on certificates of value on all forms of feeding 454 stuffs. The level of payments should be related to world prices. My regret is that the former Government did not incorporate such a scheme in its price review. This type of scheme would restore confidence in agriculture, particularly in the hill areas which are so heavily dependent on buying feed, and would bring the industry through the current profitability crisis.
The other massive jolt which agriculture has suffered is the escalation in land values. This has been caused to a large degree by the increasing influx and intervention of institutional investors into the agriculture market. These investors include various land groups and other front organisations operating on behalf of insurance companies and City interests, which are buying agricultural land on a large scale.
It is extremely important that we have measures on the Danish pattern to end speculation by institutional investors in agricultural land. Established farmers looking for farms for their sons are tired of being pushed around by pin-stripe speculators who do not know the back end of a bull from the front.
Another consequence of general inflation which has hit agriculture, as well as other sectors of the economy, is the cost of capital and credit. Here, the conclusions of the recent report by Professor Wilson on the availability of capital and credit to European agriculture has been to a large extent overtaken by events. As we have heard today, we need to extend the function of the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation, or perhaps set up an alternative institution such as an agricultural development bank to provide cheaper loans for stock and machinery and for buying agricultural land.
We cannot discuss broad agricultural policy without taking the European context fully into account. This is where the commitment in the Gracious Speech to seek a fundamental renegotiation of the terms of entry into the EEC is of prime significance. The Council of Ministers, in its directive of 19th November on aids to hill areas, pointed out that the Community is now ready to consider direct income aids to farmers in place of the import levy guarantee price set up by the CAP. This is an important signal for the future development of farm income 455 maintenance in the Community. It is essential that all areas now in receipt of hill grants and subsidies should continue to receive them under the EEC scheme. This could be negotiated, and unless it happens hill farmers in areas such as Merioneth will go unaided because, for statistical sub-division purposes, Gwynedd is an area which falls 1 per cent. below a qualifying condition of 11.3 per cent. employed in agriculture.
Implementation of EEC directives must he based on criteria relevant to the position in each region or country. This is why I strongly urge that in any renegotiation the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs ensures that there will be direct Welsh representation on Community institutions.
The previous administration seemed a little shy of allowing the Secretary of State for Wales and his Minister of State to attend the Council of Ministers. We on this bench will be watching the development of renegotiation carefully.
The remainder of the Gracious Speech contains proposals on housing, particularly on the repeal of the Housing Finance Act, and on social services and social security of which we on these benches have great expectations. I was disappointed not to see a commitment to increase family allowances, because I think that this would be the most directly effective method for overcoming family poverty. I hope that the Government will not allow low-income families to fall behind and allow the poverty gap to widen, as has tended to happen in the past.
I thank the House for its indulgence towards me in my first speech. There has been much speculation both inside and outside the Chamber about my party's attitude towards the Government and their legislative programme. If the Government bring forward radical measures in social and economic policy they will be assured of our support for those measures, but we expect from the House and the Government a positive, unambiguous response to the constitutional aspirations of the Welsh people.
§ 7.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Gwilym Roberts (Cannock)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Merioneth (Mr. Thomas) on his excellent 456 maiden speech, which was delivered mainly in English but with a little Welsh put in at various points. I view the hon. Gentleman's arrival in the House with mixed feelings, because I hope his presence here does not indicate any departure, in Wales, or in his area of Wales, from the Socialist traditions which have stood that area in good stead for so long.
I was comforted by the hon. Gentleman's remarks about radical measures and, judging from the excellence of his opening speech, I am sure that he will soon convince the House that he is a radical at heart and is prepared to further the type of Socialist policies which have benefited his area of Wales in the past. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not refer to what he said. I could do so in Welsh or in English, but I am not choosing to do so this evening.
I am sure that my electors in Cannock, Hednesford and Rugeley will forgive me if I do not use my maiden speech on this occasion to promote my constituency. I assure them that during the coming months and years I hope to familiarise the House with the names of Cannock, Hednesford and Rugeley even if I do not do so on this occasion but, instead, discuss wider issues.
I hope that with your renowned kindness to a nervous Member making his maiden speech, Mr. Speaker you will forgive me if I touch on areas of prices which are not the direct responsibility of my two right hon. Friends who are contributing to the debate.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. The hon. Member is not strictly speaking making a maiden speech. Nor do I remember any nervousness on his part when he was in the House before.
§ Mr. Roberts
This country has become accustomed to a level of inflation of about 5 per cent., or 5p in the pound per year for many years. Since 1970, we have become accustomed to an inflation level of about 10p in the pound while during the last few months of the recent Government's tenure of office we were approaching an inflation level of 15p in the pound.
It is sometimes said—people often quote the example of some South 457 American States—that a democratic Government cannot survive for long when an inflationary level of 20p in the pound comes into sight. I am not sure that I subscribe to that theory, but I wonder whether the fact that that level came into sight under the previous Government contributed to the rather irrational Liberal vote at the election.
I congratulate the Government on the anti-inflation proposals outlined in the Queen's Speech. My hon. Friends have referred to some of them—those on land, on housing and on the renegotiation of the Common Market terms—and I am convinced that in due time all these measures will have a marked effect on the inflationary movement in this country. I was particularly impressed by the speed with which action was taken to freeze rents. This will be of immediate benefit to many thousands of council and National Coal Board tenants in my constituency, but I ask my right hon. Friends not to forget the other half of my constituents—those who are buying their own homes.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride (Dr. Miller) referred to some of the proposals that may be introduced later. Some of the things that we have in mind, such as action on development land, will have a considerable long-term effect, but there is also—we have to recognise this—the important short-term problem of the cost of mortgages.
The real problem is the shortage of funds available to the building societies. To some extent this is due to the lack of additional investment, but it is due mainly to the withdrawal of a considerable amount of investment from the building societies. The reasons for this are, first, the inflationary pressures on savings generally and, secondly, the more competitive investment opportunities available in other directions.
It seems to me that the problem has to be dealt with either by restricting these other competitive investment opportunities—which seems to be extremely difficult in practice—or by providing some form of subsidy, if necessary, to ensure that the mortgage rate does not exceed the present level of 11 per cent. It would be prohibitive if it were to move above that level.
458 I hope nobody thinks that providing financial help would not be a costly business. I understand from the Building Societies Association that if we were thinking of a subsidy to prevent a 1 per cent. increase in mortgage rates that might cost about £120 million in a full year. Those are the terms in which we are talking, but, as a short-term measure before some of the other benefits of our provisions come into operation, we should seriously attempt to contain the cost of mortgages by that method. There is a precedent for this in the 1959 Housing Act, under which a type of subsidy device was used for certain categories of older houses.
If I may deal briefly with prices in general, I emphasise to my right hon. Friends that the key to controlling the whole of the price situation lies in freezing prices in the public sector. The two previous Governments had the unfortunate experience of attempting to contain wages in the public sector, but few attempts were made to control prices. There is a need for money in the public sector for various forms of capital advancement.
We can see immediately that a body such as the Central Electricity Generating Board is facing a very great problem. The considerable increase in fuel costs this year means an enormous additional burden facing that board. The average cost of a ton of fuel for electricity generation has increased during the last year from about £7 to £13. Clearly, if that sort of increase were transferred directly to the domestic consumer it would mean increases of about 50 per cent., the 50 per cent. increases which have been quoted in one or two national newspapers.
We must at all costs prevent an increase of that magnitude. There are often longstanding agreements with industrial and commercial consumers, which tie their bills automatically to fuel costs, but in the case of the domestic consumer no such arrangements generally exist. Therefore, although it would be a costly business, my right hon. Friends should seriously consider using Exchequer means of preventing any substantial rise in the domestic electricity tariff.
I very much welcome the attitude which the Government are taking on controlling 459 the cash margins on food profits. Irrespective of what is said by the Opposition, I hope that in the near future my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection will look very closely at the whole of the wholesale and retail price determination mechanism and the profit levels involved at each particular stage. My right hon. Friend is having a meeting tomorrow with the bread manufacturers. I should like to remind her of Petain's famous motto at Verdun—"They shall not pass". I suggest that she could well adopt that attitude in her discussions with the bread manufacturers.
I am not suggesting that we on the Government side of the House have a magic formula for curbing inflation at a stroke, or any nonsense like that. When considering the inflationary scene, one finds that world pressures and domestic pressures are very frightening. But I am convinced—I have become even more convinced by the Gracious Speech—that at last we have a Government with the ability, the will and the determination to curb inflation.
§ 7.34 p.m.
§ Mr. Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler (Norfolk, North-West)
May I first congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on your appointment to your office and may I express the hope that your occupancy of the Chair will give you pleasure in the months to come?
I join with the hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts) in expressing my appreciation of the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Merioneth (Mr. Thomas). Though his speech was very witty, I fear that he may cause trouble for the HANSARD reporters, who may in future have to find someone more accustomed to the hon. Gentleman's speed of delivery and his complicated pronunciations, with which those of us from East Anglia, certainly, are not familiar.
I also express my congratulations to the other maiden speakers today, in particular to the hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Howells) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Earl of Ancram), whose remarks about agricultural workers and their wages and the need for profits in agriculture were very akin to my views.
460 It is a great pleasure for me to speak for the first time in the House as the new Member of Parliament for the new constituency of Norfolk, North-West. In addition to the whole of my former constituency of King's Lynn, the virtues of which I described at some length in my maiden speech early in 1971, the new constituency includes the urban district of Wells and the rural district of Walsingham. Wells is, of course, famed for its picturesque harbour overlooking the north Norfolk marshes, which are renowned for their quiet beauty and the amazing variety of wild life. It is a town which is principally a centre for summer visitors to the area, though it is also a busy small port, the centre from which whelk fishermen operate and the home of a famous lifeboat which regularly goes to sea to safeguard the lives of those who are in distress on the very difficult waters of the north Norfolk coast.
The rural district of Walsingham is, perhaps, most widely known for its Roman Catholic shrine, to which a pilgrimage from this House went only last year. In addition, it contains the two great estates of Raynham and Holkham, where Turnip Townshend, Marquess of Rainham, and Tommy Coke, the Earl of Leicester, were the founders of the British agricultural revolution which took place early in the 18th century. It contains the market town of Fakenham which, in addition to its fine racecourse, is rapidly becoming a centre for employment in light industry throughout the area.
This new addition to my former constituency has given me an electorate of 80,000 people, spread over an area which is 70 miles long by road. It is a vast and varied constituency, which I am proud to serve—not least because it increased my majority from the rather marginal 33 to a slightly less marginal 803.
Although there has been a tremendous growth in industry in the area during the last three-and-a-half years of Conservative Government and unprecedented prosperity, agriculture and horticulture remain the most important industry in the constituency. It is for this reason that I am particularly glad to have caught your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, at this stage in the debate. I hope that the hon. Member for Cannock will forgive me if 461 I do not follow him down the paths of inflation but stick principally to my preferred ground of agriculture and horticulture.
The Gracious Speech contains a paragraph dealing with agriculture and food prices. I welcome the Government's intention toencourage the maximum economic production of food by the farming and fishing industries…in the interests of the national economy.In making that assertion, I hope that the Government recognise the importance of profits to those engaged in agriculture and horticulture as a means of providing the new investment which is needed to bring about an expansion of food production in this country. It is only if profitability remains high, as it has for the last three years, that improvements in agricultural wages will be possible. I wonder whether the Government are aware that the recent inflationary settlement of the mineworkers' pay claim means that their basic wage and allowances, their average earnings, will be about double those of agricultural workers. I am bound to remind the Minister that the production of food is no less important in the economy than the production of coal.
§ Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler
No. I have a good deal more to say, and a number of other hon. Members wish to speak.
If the Minister of Agriculture thinks it right to curtail farm-gate prices in his search for cheap food, he will be guilty of the charge of making the farmworker subsidise the miner's wife. In view of the already staggering disparity between wages earned in those two vital industries, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will consider very seriously referring agricultural wages at the earliest possible opportunity to the Relativities Board in order to redress the very unfair balance which exists.
I note from the Gracious Speech that the Government will seekto establish fair prices for certain key foods.I am a little puzzled as to what that means. I hope that it does not mean that prices will be fair only to the housewife 462 and not to the farmer and the agricultural worker.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not allow his party's election propaganda to persuade him that the common agricultural policy has forced food prices up. Now that he is faced with the responsibility of office he must recognise that, despite its deficiencies, the common agricultural policy system of guarantees has helped expand domestic production at stable prices while free world prices have soared. The lesson is clear—there can be no cheap food now.
The right hon. Gentleman will also realise that British horticulturists are severely threatened by the oil-subsidised products of Dutch and German glasshouse producers. The Dutch price of heavy oil is about 5p per gallon compared with a United Kingdom price of nearly 16p per gallon, although I understand that the Dutch price is shortly to be increased, at least notionally, to about 11p per gallon.
Nevertheless, this disparity in oil prices could only encourage the import of sub-sidised production from Europe at the expense of domestic production. The Dutch system of grants to aid glasshouse producers who wish to switch from oil to natural gas has been very effective. Sixty per cent. of their producers have already made the switch and it is estimated that 80 per cent. will be on natural gas at a cost of about 4p per gallon by the end of this year.
In view of these factors, will the right hon. Gentleman consider, first, introducing a heavy oil subsidy to the glasshouse industry and, secondly, instituting conversion grant capital aid for British industry? Unless he takes action of this kind he will be vulnerable to the charge of running down the British glasshouse industry in favour of cheap European production.
I turn to a different part of the Gracious Speech in which reference is made, indirectly, to the recent report of the Kilbrandon Commission. Although it is never the right time to discuss conditions of work in the House of Commons, I believe that the Kilbrandon Report shows that it is timely to consider whether a threat to democracy does not lie in Parliament's inefficiency and unwillingness to come to terms with modern practices of business administration. I 463 strongly believe that there is an urgent need for action to ensure that no Member of Parliament is prevented from discharging in full his duty to his electorate because of shortages of staff or facilities.
Although I welcome the Government's intention to investigate means of bearing the cost of opposition—which may directly benefit my right hon. and hon. Friends more than myself—it is only a starting point. It is vital that members of the Shadow Cabinet and Opposition Whips achieve proper financial independence from non-parliamentary influences, and I welcome the remarks about this by the Prime Minister when he opened the debate on the Gracious Speech.
I hope that the Leader of the House will find time in the near future to announce the reactivation of the Boyle Committee, with a number of special points of reference. The first should be to consider again whether Members of Parliament should be able to secure the services of a full-time secretary, appointed by them but employed by Parliament at the going Civil Service rate, taking account of unsocial hours, recesses and other matters, and to consider whether, as a first step in improving support for hon. Members, the existing £1,000 secretarial allowance should remain with hon. Members as a contribution towards additional secretarial or research assistance which, in these days of extremely heavy constituency correspondence and complicated legislation, is vital in achieving efficiency.
Secondly, it would be timely to consider the introduction of session payments, perhaps related to the Civil Service fees to advisers, in respect of service on Select and Standing Committees. This is of particular importance to those who chair such Committees and who, by virtue of their full-time parliamentary activity, are precluded from supplementing their earnings outside the House. It is fair to add that such provision may help more back benchers to play a fuller part in the work of the Committees rather than having to spend all their spare time seeking additional income from activities outside the House.
Thirdly, it is surely vital that a proper assessment is made of the need for adequate office accommodation for 464 Members of Parliament and their staff. It is nothing short of disgraceful that hon. Members, their secretaries and research assistants—even if they are in that fortunate minority who have reasonably accessible offices in the precincts—do not have office accommodation which enables them all to be accommodated in the same place. The present situation is not satisfactory.
Parliament should offer this facility to all hon. Members. If office space is short I suggest that until the new Parliamentary building is completed, provision of office space for hon. Members and their staff should take priority over Civil Service accommodation in the environs of Westminster and, if necessary, civil servants should be moved further away from the House.
Fourthly, I hope that the Boyle Committee can review the Members' pension scheme to take account of the average length of MP's service and the fact that this period of service coincides with that time in Members' lives when, if in private employment, they would make the most substantial gains in their pension entitlement.
Finally, I hope that the Boyle Committee will consider again very carefully whether the time has not come for the salaries of hon. Members to be linked to that of a Civil Service grade in order that increases in salary can be made annually to take account of inflation, rather than our having the periodic public row when, after long periods without adjustment, attempts are made to bring Members' salaries up to date.
I appreciate that all these measures are hot potatoes politically. But unless steps are made to improve working conditions and services for the modern Member of Parliament he will increasingly be at a disadvantage in representing his constituents' interests against the increasing efficiency of Government, Civil Service bureaucracy, and the ever proliferating range of non-accountable public bodies. A strong Parliament, efficiently organised to probe the Government of the day, is vital to the continuance of democracy.
§ 7.49 p.m.
§ Mr. George Rodgers (Chorley)
The hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler) will forgive me 465 if I do not pursue his line of thought. I was greatly interested in what he said but I shall take advantage, instead, of the custom which allows new Members to dwell on constituency affairs.
My constituency is in the heart of Lancashire. For 25 years, until 1970, it was well represented by Clifford Kenyon, who will be remembered with deep affection by many hon. Members. More recently Mrs. Connie Monks served the constituency. Perhaps the greatest tribute that I can pay to this lady is to refer to my fragile majority of 405 votes, which was secured only after a ferocious campaign.
The Chorley constituency is substantial in both electors and acres. It contains and reflects the concentrated opinion of a wide section of our people. It has districts of great natural beauty, the villages of Rivington and Anglezark being among the most attractive in the country. There is also the township of Leyland—the pride of the British motor industry—where there is a well-informed and highly-skilled work force.
I expect that the desperate necessity to extend and improve our public transport service will find the motor company at Leyland ready, capable and anxious to meet requirements. In past years the region in which Chorley is situated has generated enormous prosperity for the whole of the nation, through the coal and cotton industries, but not enough of that prosperity has remained in the area where it was created.
There are no longer any pits in my constituency, although we still have the proud village of Coppull, from which miners travel to collieries elsewhere.
Cotton, too, has been in steep decline, but it is still of extreme importance to the local economy. Let us hope that the lesson has been absorbed and that the welfare of decent people will never again be put at risk to secure short-term economic advantages.
The central Lancashire new town will straddle the Chorley constituency. This is a hold, unique and exciting project. It is not a huddle complex but a programme to enhance existing development over a huge area. The concept is breathtaking in its originality and it is important that the development should not lurch and splutter. The programme should move 466 forward in harmony so that the provision of industry, housing, hospitals and schools is a continuous process as the concept unfolds.
But I am not happy that the members of the board of the new town are appointed. I do not accept the principle that, whereas we elect local councillors and Members of Parliament who are responsible to the electorate, we should appoint members of hospital boards, health boards and new town boards. They may well provide notable service but they are not directly responsible to the people whose lives are affected by their decisions.
We are fortunate that my constituency is served by a network of motorways which gives speedy access to all parts of the country. I believe that the area cries out for investment and offers golden prospects to the industry or Government Department which recognises its potential. My constituency is a splendid mixture of town and country, of tradition and progress, of industry and farm land. All the various authorities have shown much vision in providing amenities, especially for the aged. However, I remain concerned at the limited resources for the disabled and the handicapped. I am confident that the appointment of a Minister with special responsibility for them will meet with the approval of the whole House.
But the sad fact remains that when one member of a family is afflicted by disability, the whole family is stricken. The parents of a handicapped child bear the burden of terrible and continuous stress, and frequently financial problems are brought about simply by harsh circumstances and by sad misfortune. Of course we appreciate that there are heavy financial responsibilities at Government level, too, but those doubly blessed by wealth and health will surely accept that it becomes in such circumstances a privilege to assist the less fortunate members of our community.
I am determined to honour the convention which indicates that I must not be too controversial on this occasion, so I conclude by extending a cordial invitation to all right hon. and hon. Members, particularly those who can influence the course of events, to visit the fair constituency of Chorley to enjoy warm Lancashire companionship and to see with their 467 own eyes the value of investment in central Lancashire.
§ 7.54 p.m.
§ Mr. Hamish Watt (Banff)
In the three short days I have been in this House I have been given to understand that it is the tradition for a new Member to speak about his constituency. Were this not a tradition, I would do it anyway.
I am indeed proud to speak about a constituency which bred me, reared me, fed me and schooled me. I am particularly proud to speak of the constituency of Banff because it is the richest constituency in the whole of the United Kingdom, having, as it has, no fewer than 30 distilleries, all of them turning out excellent whisky. I would commend the beverage to those hon. Members who do not know it. I will not mention any brand names. Suffice it to say that there is no such thing as bad whisky. There are only some that are better than others.
But I did not get my red face from a whisky bottle. I got it from facing the same cold winds as my fellow farmers throughout Scotland face as we have done our job on days when no one else would venture out, tending sheep and looking after cattle. There have been times when anyone with more sense would have remained inside. But we did the job simply to help British housewives get food at reasonable prices.
It was particularly gratifying to me to hear in the Gracious Speech that the Government intend to encourage the "maximum economic production" of food and fish. These are grand words and I was delighted to hear them. Being a new boy and still not cynical, I hope that we can take them at their face value. But what is the good of a grandoise scheme if, in the meantime, our producers are bleeding to death, when pig fatteners are losing up to £3 a pig sent to market and when our beef fatteners are losing as much as £25 an animal sent to the slaughterhouse? Such losses are being incurred at the moment.
About this time last year, the Gulliver committee suggested that the producers of beef cattle required £20 per hundredweight to break even, to cover their costs. Yet today all our beef fatteners can get in the market is about £17 to £18 a 468 hundredweight. These losses are to be passed on soon to the men who can least afford them—the hill and uplands farmers. I beg the Government to do something about the beef situation now and not wait a whole year until the next price review. The beef farmer turns over his money rather more quickly than the breeder, who has often to wait two to three years for his investment to yield any dividend.
I turn to the proposal in the guarantee scheme to remove the lime subsidy. I have taken the opportunity to use the excellent Library facilities of the House to do some investigation into the lime subsidy. I found that it was no less than 37 years ago, on 19th June 1937, that a certain gentleman by the name of Mr. Clement Attlee asked the then Conservative Government about the subsidy, which was about to come into being.
I can recall the days before that subsidy, when I was little more than a boy. I recall an 18-acre field on my father's farm which could sustain only six Clydesdale horses. But since the introduction of the lime subsidy and farmers having used lime to sweeten the soil and remove acidity, that same field can carry 50 dairy cows throughout the summer and about 60 sheep throughout the winter. That is the measure of improvement which the lime subsidy has brought about in these 37 years.
It is regrettable that not all the acres of this country have yet been limed and broken in. There is a great deal more to do. I have noted the cost of this subsidy over the years. On average, it has been £5 million a year. Never has any Government spent money more wisely. I commend to you, Mr. Speaker, the efforts of the British farmer. In my election campaign I addressed a meeting of 200 farmers. I asked how many of them had gone abroad this year for their holidays. I said, "Come on, hands up". There was no response. I then asked, "How many of you did a drainage scheme last year?" No fewer than 53 said that they had done such a scheme. Surely this is indicative of the quality of men who own and handle our farms. Surely it is an indication of how the Government should spend their money if they want results.
I turn now to the coastal part of my constituency and the problems facing the 469 fishermen along the Moray coast. It is significant that of the seven constituencies which returned Scottish National Party Members at this election, no fewer than five have vital fishing interests. We discovered throughout the campaign that the fishermen were vitally concerned about what is to happen to them if the fishing regulations of the EEC are allowed to take effect in 1982.
What will happen when the boats of the EEC countries are allowed to fish right up to our shores and take away mature and immature stocks of fish? These men have every right to be concerned about their future. I will do all I can to look after their interests. I ask the Government, what are they doing as of now about negotiating with our fishing interests over the problem of fishing limits? I understand that the Law of the Sea Conference is to take place in Caracas later this year. Yet so far there has been no attempt to get in touch with our fishermen and fishing interests to see what they want. I hope that we shall see a considerable extension of our fishing limits after that Conference and I sincerely hope that our negotiators will take a hard line.
Our fishermen go out trawling either singly or in pairs. However, off the coast of Caithness, in particular, on a clear day, it is possible to see anything up to 30 Russian or Polish boats, line abreast, sweeping the sea clean. They have no need of fish finders, as do our men, or of skill, as have our men. They just sweep the sea clean. I hope that this will be changed after the Law of the Sea Conference.
I come now to the problem of forestry as it affects not only my constituency but the entire United Kingdom. We are just now experiencing a shortage of food and energy. These shortages will pale into insignificance in comparison with the timber shortage which is looming up. By 1990, the only country in the world with any spare capacity of timber will be Siberia. We can well imagine what the price of that timber will be when it is the only available source in the world. At the moment our forests provide only 12 per cent. of our requirements. We have 16 years until 1990 in which to go ahead and plant trees. I am not suggesting that those trees will be ready for cutting by 1990 but at least we shall be 470 somewhere along the road to a greater degree of self-sufficiency.
I do not suggest that we can ever become self-sufficient in timber but I should like to see the country's supply at a level which would enable us, in times of great scarcity, to cut our timber so that we would not be left in dire straits. There is one obvious place in which to grow this timber. It is in those vast grouse moors and deer forests which this country has allowed to continue for far too long. We can no longer afford the two ounces of grouse per acre per annum that we have had to put up with over the years from these idle acres. I commend to the Government an expansionist policy in fishing, farming and forestry, making greater use of this nation's resources.
§ 8.05 p.m.
§ Mr. Gwynoro Jones (Carmarthen)
Before dealing with the Gracious Speech and in particular with the problems of agriculture I wish to congratulate the hon. Members for Chorley (Mr. Rodgers) and Banff (Mr. Watt) upon their eloquent maiden speeches. Listening to them I had the impression that they had been here for more than just a few days. They did that which is the duty of every hon. Member they voiced the fears and concerns of their constituents.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley spoke of his slim majority of 405. You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, know very well that he is in a strong position indeed. After four recounts I managed to retain my seat with a majority of three. My hon. Friend can rest assured that he has a bright future in the House. I offer my services to the House in the delicate situation confronting us right now, when we have a minority Government. If there is any problem with recounts in this House in the coming weeks, I am prepared help settle any disputes that may arise.
Despite my slender majority it is with immense pride that, being one of the youngest Members of the House, I am still able to represent the constituency of Carmarthen in this, my second term in Parliament. I wish to deal with the problems confronting agriculture in the short term. There are clearly long-term problems, such as that confronting agriculture in mid-Wales, the need of further encouragement to hill farming, the need to attract younger people into agriculture, 471 and the need for cheaper credit facilities. I do not want to dwell on these tonight because it would take too long.
Dealing with the short-term problems, there is no question that agriculture is in a state of crisis. Despite what the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) said about what the previous Government had done, he must concede that from the spring of 1973 until the last few weeks the Tory Government left agriculture in a crisis situation. Confidence is at a low ebb. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries has a major problem before him. The agricultural community expects from him a clear message of intent about what the Government propose to restore the necessary confidence in the months ahead.
The escalating cost of animal feeding stuffs and of production, especially since last spring, has caused a dramatic drop in confidence. The right hon. Gentleman spoke of production increasing. He was presumably talking of 1971, 1972 and the first half of 1973. It will be conceded that in the past few months we have witnessed for the first time since 1964 a dramatic drop in milk production. In October, November and December, and in January of this year there was a drop of well over 20 million gallons in milk production. That represented a decline of about 3 per cent. a month. In the slaughterhouses not only is there an increase in the number of cows being slaughtered, which is itself an expression of lack of confidence, but there are being slaughtered cows in calf, which is something we have not witnessed for many years.
That is the situation with which the Labour Government are confronted. Another problem is the decline in the artificial insemination service. There was a dramatic decline in the usage of A.I. facilities in the dairy sector between the last quarter of 1973 and the last quarter of 1972. That means that the present problem will be nothing compared with the problem regarding the dairy herd which might confront us in the winter of 1974 and onwards.
There are many other points which I could make relating to the underlying lack of confidence which exists in the agricultural industry. There is a low reserve of liquid milk. It was estimated 472 during the Christmas period that if one in every 400 people had ordered an extra pint there would have been a shortfall. That is the delicate position in which we are. It is clear that the price review was only a holding operation. The review, in terms of the dairy farmer, offered 3½p per gallon and a back payment of 1½p. Clearly that was a measure of assistance in the short term, but the price of animal feeding stuffs in 1973 rose by 80 per cent. to 100 per cent. compared with 1972 prices. If that sort of increase continues in 1974 it is clear that the Government will have to recognise that they must not fall into the same trap into which the previous Government fell.
The farming community expected special concessions and assistance last autumn. That was not forthcoming at that time, but such assistance came in the February review. Clearly we cannot wait another year before something is done to assist the farmers.
The hon. Member for Banff raised the important matter of the abolition of subsidies on fertilisers and lime. That was a retrograde step. I hope that within a short time my right hon. Friend will be able to reintroduce that vital subsidy for the hill and marginal land areas. Those are areas where farming is difficult and hazardous and where encouragement is needed. Frequently the subsidy has been of tremendous help to farmers in such areas. It has been taken away, and yet we are asking farmers to produce more. We have also been asking them to invest more. Turning to the problem of the need for more investment, in 1971 the Government asked the agriculture industry to expand and to invest. That it did, and it did so in a massive way. At that time credit facilities were available at 7 per cent. and 8 per cent. and the end price for the farmer was increasing. Since then credit facilities have become more expensive. The cost of borrowing money is up to 15 per cent., 16 per cent. or 17 per cent., and the end price since the autumn is declining.
As the hon. Member for Banff said, the price of cull cows and of calves has declined. At the same time, farmers face escalating costs of production and higher interest charges with lower returns. That happened when we were asking them to expand. We are asking them now to have 473 confidence. The agricultural fraternity has a right to expect something from the Government. I shall not be unkind to my right hon. and hon. Friends as they have been in office for only a short time and I do not expect them to tell me tomorrow morning precisely what will happen in the agricultural industry, but a commitment of intent soon after they have settled in office must be forthcoming. The industry deserves it.
We frequently tend to look upon the problems of agriculture and the problems of the consumer, the farmer and the housewife as separate matters. It is clear that they are not. If there is a decline in production, as we are now witnessing, and if, in the coming year, there is to be a decline in the dairy herd and in beef production, we shall witness an increase in prices next winter or within a year from now. There is a direct link between assistance and encouragement to the agriculture industry and the retention of stable prices for the housewife. We must get that clear, and it must be pointed out to the people.
In the present balance of payments situation and the current crisis economic position, the contribution that agriculture can make to lessening the food import bill, given the right sort of atmosphere, is considerable. Agriculture has a contribution to make, as it is one of our natural resources. We are now accepting, quite rightly, that the coal industry can claim a special case in terms of its ability to answer Britain's energy needs. In the current crisis, the agriculture industry is just as much a special case in that it can be instrumental in reducing the import bill and thereby making a contribution towards the balance of payments crisis which now faces us. It will make us less dependent on other countries for our food supply.
§ 8.17 p.m.
§ Mr. McCusker (Armagh)
I am conscious of the opportunity which you have given me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and conscious of a lack of polish and experience in these affairs. I beg your indulgence and the indulgence of hon. Members if I transgress from the customs and practices of the House.
I immediately pay tribute to my predecessor, Mr. Jack Maginnis, who had 474 represented Armagh for 15 years. He was an honest and honourable man. Those are attributes which are unfortunately sadly lacking in public affairs today, and I am sure that they will be missed in this House. Mr. Maginnis represented Armagh to the best of his ability, and the thanks of everyone in the county are due to him.
My constituency is the smallest county in Northern Ireland. It is frequently referred to as the orchard county. It is justly famous for the excellence of its Bramley apples. Today I saw some of them for sale in a local street market adjacent to the House. As some Members may know, Bramley apples are slightly bitter, and when exposed to heat they quickly reduce to a jelly-like consistency. The first such attribute, unfortunately, I now possess, because I am slightly bitter. Whether or not I possess the second attribute can be confirmed only by those Members present in the days and weeks that lie ahead.
My county is also referred to—and it is proud of the title—as the County of the Diamond. Perhaps some Members will know that it is so called because it was within the county that the famous Battle of the Diamond was fought, which led to the formation of the Orange Order. It is unfortunate that the battle still rages in the streets, townlands and border areas in the county.
Although County Armagh has had its fair share of the industrial development there has been in Northern Ireland since the war, the principal industry is still agriculture. The full range of farming activities is practised diligently and efficiently. The Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries referred to the necessity for improving morale and effectiveness within the agriculture community. On the question of morale, I could not agree more, but he holds the key to this, and I hope he will soon tell us how he intends to use it.
In Armagh are some of the most efficient farm units in the United Kingdom. If the Minister does not take immediate action to alleviate the plight of the pig, beef and egg producers—the people whom I represent—these assets will be lost to the nation and the skill of the farmers will be lost to factory-based industries. The units are too small to be converted 475 to other uses and many farmers are already leaving them.
It is all very well for the Minister to exhort better use of our grassland—we have some of the best—but he must do something about the cost of feeding stuffs, if only to put Northern Ireland on a par with the rest of the United Kingdom. I could add £2 or £3 to figures mentioned by previous speakers. The Minister must realise the fix that some of our people are in.
I welcome the assurance in the Gracious Speech that the Government intend to encourage maximum economic production in the interests of the national economy. There are many other aspects of the Gracious Speech with which I concur, such as action on pensions, prices, a voluntary incomes policy, renegotiation of the entry terms to the EEC and repeal of the Industrial Relations Act. It appears that I would perhaps be better sitting on the Government benches rather than with the Opposition.
The part of the Gracious Speech which I cannot accept is that which refers to Northern Ireland. At a time when murder and violence are rampant, it is a disgrace that the defeat of terrorism is mentioned almost as an afterthought. The last thing my constituents said to me before I came here was, "Make sure you tell them what it is all about and what it is like."
Belfast is only 55 minutes' travel time from London. The television, radio and newspapers have already told the people here what the trouble is all about, and I do not need to tell them. What an indictment it is of the House that the people whom I represent see policies being practised all around them which lead them to think that the people over here cannot know what it is all about. That is the tragedy of our situation. Governments here are prepared to continue with policies that have resulted in one soldier being killed yesterday and one of my constituents having two legs blown off today. The blood and guts spilt on the streets of Belfast represent a tragedy which lies heavily on the heads of some gentlemen who are not too far away from me tonight.
The implication in the Gracious Speech is that peace can still be bought by further political concessions. Surely that idea has 476 been exposed over the last few years as a myth. The only encouraging aspect is that from speaking to various hon. Members I have gained the impression that there is a realisation in the House that this battle must be won. I hope that that realisation will be followed by a growing realisation of a will to win. My only hope is that the will to win will quickly permeate through to Government thinking and will lead to a change in what they are now advocating.
§ 8.23 p.m.
§ Mr. George Park (Coventry, North-East)
My illustrious predecessor in office, the right hon. R. H. S. Crossman, represented the greater part of my constituency for more than a quarter of a century. During that time he occupied with distinction many of the great offices of state. Retirement from the House will mean for him not rustication but a redirection of his energies and ideas. I hope that he will long be spared to provide us with the ideas—sometimes controversial—which lie has expressed over the years.
Coventry, North-East, which I have the honour to represent, is a compact constituency of 64,000 electors, more concerned with industry than with agriculture but greatly involved in the pricing policy. There is a widespread assumption, shared even by some of my colleagues, that to be sent to Coventry is a passport to affluence. I wish it were so, but my experience and a recent survey taken in the constituency reveal that many people have wages and incomes well below the national average. The projected rent increases were regarded by them with apprehension, and they are relieved by the immediate steps taken to halt rent increases and restrain price inflation.
I hope, in addition, that regard is had to mortgage interest rates. The local authority in Coventry has taken major initiatives in acting as a watchdog on prices and in the giving of mortgages when the national building societies have practically shut up shop for the provision of first mortgages.
Within the boundaries of North-East Coventry there are factories producing man-made fibres, units of the car industry and machine tools, and there are also industrial estates. I have noted with concern the shrinkage of a major machine tool firm. Designs are produced in Coventry but the machines are produced 477 abroad. There seems to be greater interest in an agency than in domestic production, and engineering generally is recruiting insufficient apprentices to replace the existing labour force.
Such concentrations of industry bring problems in achieving a balance between the need for industry and a reasonable environment for people living adjacent to it, although I have not met any constituents who want to solve that problem by three-day working.
Finally, I welcome the repeal of the Industrial Relations Act. As a former shop steward I know from experience that legislation on industrial relations only bedevils the situation. It provides a paradise for lawyers and frustration for workers and management. I welcome the progressive measures contained in the Gracious Speech and I believe that the country will wish to see the legislation carried through.
§ 8.30 p.m.
§ Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)
It is a pleasure to follow a maiden speech, and to congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Park) on a speech full of facts. If it had not been a maiden speech I should have intervened. The tribute the hon. Gentleman paid to his predecessor, who was well known and admired by us all, was well put and well deserved.
In discussing the Gracious Speech, one first considers what is not in it. It is a pot-pourri of short platitudes, as the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries was aware when he followed up with more platitudes. It is becoming evident that a Socialist Government are realising some of the difficulties we had over world food prices. It is slowly filtering through, and I look forward to hearing from the right hon. Lady how much she has learned of the facts of life on prices in this very short period.
From a constituency point of view, the one matter that interests me most of all is the reference to the reassessment of major projects. It will be no surprise to the House that one of the major projects likely to be reassessed is the Channel Tunnel. I hope that there will be an early statement on what is to happen on the reassessment of this project. In my constituency we have had nine years of 478 uncertainty, and it has had a great effect on the development land in the area.
During the election I said that conditions had altered to some degree over the Channel Tunnel need. It has to be appreciated that it is a project which will take a number of years. The view I have always taken is that to have an expanding economy and an increase in traffic, which all the projections indicate, it is necessary to make special provisions for a project which will relieve the traffic in the area, particularly in the towns of Folkestone and Dover.
On other other hand, if there is to be a contracting economy—and we generally get a contracting economy with a Socialist Government—there is a need to reassess the project. I ask the Government to make a statement on the matter as quickly as possible giving all possible information.
It should be borne in mind that when the Labour Party was in power earlier, the Channel Tunnel project was conceived. When we were in power we went to a great deal of trouble to publish all the facts and to make them available. Under the previous regime the facts were not made available. I plead with the Secretary of State for the Environment to do all he can to make available his policies and the facts on which he has evaluated them.
The debate is primarily on agriculture. In my constituency Romney Marsh has a reputation for its sheep. There are pig farmers who are concerned at the high cost of feeding and the effect on the producers. I hope that the Secretary of State for Agriculture and Fisheries will make an early statement.
At the opening of a new Parliament we normally look forward to a period of some stability. It is impossible to assess with the present minority Government what will happen. The electorate indicated that what they wanted was a coalition. I only regret that the Liberal Party did not seize the opportunity of a coalition to get rid of the Socialist measures we are all so worried about, particularly nationalisation.
I shall study in great detail what the Government intend to do. We saw in 1964 and 1966 how the Socialist tacticians brought out all the "goodies" and then went to the country. The nation will 479 realise that they cannot do that confidence trick again. I hope that whenever they try to do so we shall defeat them, and that the Prime Minister will not carry out the threat in his first speech that even if the Government were defeated he would take little notice of that defeat.
§ 8.35 p.m.
§ Mr. Harry Selby (Glasgow, Govan)
I find myself in rather a funny situation. Govan is still essentially Govan, though it has extended slightly to the east and slightly to the west, so it is not really a new constituency.
But that is not the peculiar part about it. In the past few months it has had two representatives—the late John Rankin, who represented Govan very successfully and assiduously for almost 30 years, followed by a Mrs. MacDonald, who represented it for roughly 30 days. To whom do I pay compliments? I think that I should pay my compliments to John Rankin. I hope that I shall not serve as long as John Rankin; I also hope that I shall serve longer than Mrs. MacDonald.
Govan is well known. Despite some people's claims, I think that it is the best-known constituency in Glasgow. We build the best ships—that is known the world over. The best ships in the world are built on the Clyde, in Govan. Need I extol the virtues of Govan? The people of Govan are proud to belong to Govan. At one time the boundaries of Govan school board stretched to the other side of the River Clyde, further than any other part of Glasgow. The school board had a proud record in education.
Now today, unfortunately, Govan has no proud record. We have cranes lying empty, shipping berths lying empty, and dereliction among the houses. People want to stay in Govan, but unfortunately we have not the houses for them. Any hon. Member who has visited Govan, as some did during the by-election, will have seen the desolation there, the buildings in disrepair. We have plans to rebuild Govan, but unfortunately the last Secretary of State sat on them for years.
The people we tried to rehouse did not want to leave their slums, but some of them have done so. We have built some lovely new houses in Govan—we 480 have 10 multi-storey buildings—but they have not the same feel and tradition that Govan itself used to have. I hope that with the new Government we shall go ahead and rebuild Govan with the old tradition, not merely for people living there and not only shopping centres, but for work, for we need work in Govan.
During this election, I stood for a certain programme. Basically, the first point was that if the Labour Party was returned, the miners' strike would end, and it ended. That was victory No. 1. I said that if the Labour Party returned to office we would freeze rents. Rents have been frozen—victory No. 2. I said that if the Labour Party was returned, we should go back to full-time working—victory No. 3. I also said I committed my party to putting up pensions—and by the way I claim that my constituency party in Govan, along with the Transport and General Workers Union, was successful in pushing the £16 pension through the Labour Party conference, and I am pleased to say that we have achieved a victory and we are to put that decision into operation. Govan therefore has claims to fame for reasons other than building ships.
The next point was prices. In the 1970 election, the then leader of the Tory Party—I do not know whether he still is—was proclaiming, "Look to your purses, look to your shopping basket". He said that if a Labour Government were returned the price of a loaf would be three shillings—15p. And, lo and behold! He achieved that, and the people of Govan know it. That is one of the reasons why the General Election reversed the by-election trend.
Prices are very important. As the population of Govan has diminished, the older people have been left and they go about looking for the cheapest food. At one time in Govan as a push-by an old person would buy a quarter of corn dobay—corned beef. That was a push-by meal; today, after three-and-a-half years of Conservative rule, it is a luxury.
I hope that the new Minister in charge of prices will look carefully at the amount of money spent on advertising. If one turns on the television one sees inflation—not just a bit of inflation but a soaring balloon advertising bread, for instance. How much money is spent on advertising bread? Is it necessary to advertise 481 bread? As far as I know, the first bread advertisement was in the Bible. The Jews who made unleavened bread advertised free of charge. Why advertise something that people must have?
I hope that the new Minister will carefully examine the books of all companies to see how much is being spent on advertising. This applies not just to bread. Are the people of this country so dirty that they must constantly be told to wash? Soap powders and soap are advertised all the time. Are we so dirty? We must use soap, whether we like it or not, so why advertise it?
I hope that the Minister will examine the prices of these commodities carefully, and look at the cartels and trusts which have raised prices. It is the same with a gallon of petrol. They advertise petrol, and the price is still the same. Where is the free competition? It is the same with the price of tyres. There is no free competition. There is collusion among big businesses, no matter where one lives. I trust that the new Minister will examine the whole matter carefully so that my people in Govan will get a fair deal.
§ 8.42 p.m.
§ Mr. Robin F. Cook (Edinburgh, Central)
I, too, am a new Member and I begin by paying tribute to my predecessor, Mr. Tom Oswald, who represented Edinburgh, Central in this House for over 20 years. I have been a Member of this House for only a very short period, but in that time I have come to appreciate how much those who worked beside Tom valued him as a conscientious and reliable Member of this House.
We in Edinburgh have long respected Tom as one who always gave the first claim on his time to any constituent with a problem. Those who knew him well will be familiar with his habit of maintaining a running serial number on all items of correspondence which he dispatched from this House. It will give some idea of how hard he worked for his constituents when I tell the House that at his retirement Tom Oswald had just reached his 40,000th letter.
We do not conduct much agriculture in the city centre of Edinburgh. Therefore, I do not intend to follow those hon. Members who have spoken on this subject in the debate. However, we have a 482 serious housing problem. For many of my constituents the expenditure on housing is the major expenditure in their weekly budget. Therefore, I propose to address myself to the price of housing and to the increase in the price of housing which has taken place in recent years.
We have heard a lot in this debate about the increases in international commodity prices. We have heard how world market forces have pushed up prices with the inexorability of the laws of dynamics. It is worth noting that there is no world market in council houses. We neither trade them nor play the commodity market with them. Yet twice in the past 18 months my constituents have been faced with a major increase in the weekly price of their housing, their council rent, although the rent they pay is among the highest in Scotland.
Therefore, I welcome wholeheartedly the rent freeze announced by the Secretary of State last week. I do so as chairman of the housing committee of Edinburgh, an authority with 52,000 council tenants. However, very few of those council tenants actually live within my constituency. Indeed, the reason for the acute housing shortage in the city centre is that for decades we have torn down the slums and failed to replace them with modern houses. A much greater proportion of my constituents are private tenants, and to many of those private tenants that rent freeze will be of far greater benefit than to most council tenants.
I went on a number of walkabouts in my constituency around the shopping centres, expecting to meet shoppers who would talk to me about the increase in food prices. They did, but far more often we met elderly people, private tenants, who were desperately worried by the notice they had just received of the increase in their rent. In one case there was a punitive increase of £98 per annum for a room and kitchen.
I concede that in some cases the rent of privately rented property is unrealistically low, but it must be remembered that many of those who still benefit from rent control are themselves elderly people receiving the old-age pension. They have not only a low income but are least capable of adjusting budget habits of a 483 lifetime to a situation in which their weekly rent is trebled.
It must also be remembered that we are talking of property which is the worst in the housing stock and the most neglected. Only this week I received a letter from a constituent who informed me that his rent was being increased by 400 per cent. phased over only four years. Yet this tenant has no hot water and there is no obligation on the private landlord to provide hot water at any stage in the course of those four years.
Elsewhere in my constituency there are over 100 private tenants who are faced with a rent that will treble; yet I have a letter from the factor of their landlord informing one of the tenants that he is under instruction to spend no money on the repair of the properties. In these circumstances, what possible cost inflation or conceivable wage claim could justify these price increases?
I regret the extent to which discussion on the Housing Finance Act has concentrated on the council sector. I regret it because it has concealed the greatest evil of the two Acts—the evil that for the first time since the Great War it is possible to get a good return on money invested in slums.
We have been told that we need not worry unduly about these price increases because those with low incomes—the weak members of society—are protected by rent rebate and rent allowance schemes. On Tuesday there was quite a bit of chest-beating by hon. Members who seemed to imply that because we shall repeal the Housing Finance Act we might somehow contrive to make rebate schemes illegal. The hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. MacArthur), who is not here tonight, referred to 149,000 council tenants in Scotland who are living rent free because of the Housing Finance Act. That is not the case. Less than one-tenth of those council tenants are living rent free because they receive a rebate. Over 90 per cent.—the overwhelming majority—live rent free because they receive supplementary benefit and always have their rent paid for them in any case.
It is worth remembering that, even before the Housing Finance Act, nine out of 10 council tenants in Scotland 484 were already covered by a rent rebate scheme. Indeed, the rebate scheme that we in Edinburgh were compelled to drop by law was significantly more generous than the rebate scheme we then had to introduce. I do not expect that the Government intend to make it illegal for us to retain a rebate scheme. I am confident that they will restore to us the freedom to make that rebate scheme more generous once again. Repeal is only a first step and a beginning towards a more just system of housing finance.
Those of us interested particularly in housing will watch the proposals put forward by the Government with particular concern to see whether they tackle the causes of increased housing costs. I welcome particularly the commitment given in the Gracious Speech to bring into public ownership building land. Here we have one of the clear, root causes of the recent increases in the price of houses. There have been references to commodity speculation forcing up prices. There is no clearer case of that than in building land.
The hon. Member for Merioneth (Mr. Thomas) has already referred to speculation in agricultural land. Let me give one example of speculation in urban land which has occurred in the city centre of Edinburgh. A major industrial company wished to dispose of four acres of derelict industrial land. It was sold on a Wednesday for £137,000. On the Thursday, the company which acquired the land sold it again for £200,000. On the afternoon of that Thursday the gentleman to whom the company sold it, sold it again for £220,000—an increase of £80,000 within 24 hours.
The company which sold the land in the first place is not an innocent in business. It is a major industrial concern, well known to many hon. Members on the Government benches for the very fine beer it brews, and to the Opposition for the fine donations that it makes to their party.
Presumably, the company regarded the price as a fair one for the site. The £80,000 beyond that represents pure profit on speculation, and it has two consequences. First, it has the consequence that the site could not be used for council housing because we could not afford it at that price. Secondly, it means that every house now being built on that site 485 will finally sell for £800 more because of the increase in the cost of the land.
It is scandalous that we should allow speculation to drive up the price of an essential commodity such as housing in this way, and I welcome the commitment to take building land out of the market. I was distressed to see in the Gracious Speech that "Proposals will be prepared". I hope we do not take too long preparing those proposals because unless we have public ownership of land, it will not be possible to expand the house building programme.
Finally, I should like to thank the House for the courteous silence maintained throughout my speech, particularly as all I have said has not been of a non-contentious nature. However, I do not apologise for having confined myself to one topic. Housing is the major problem of my constituency, and its rising cost is the major inflationary pressure on my constituents. I am confident that they will welcome the prompt action of the Government to contain those costs.
§ 8.52 p.m.
§ Mr. John Ovenden (Gravesend)
My constituency has often been said to be the most typical political barometer in the country. In deference to certain hon. Members opposite, perhaps I should say "In these countries".
It might be said that Gravesend is an opinion pollster's dream. Over the last 51 years, that constituency has regularly elected a Member to serve upon the Government benches. At the risk of sounding somewhat contentious, I must say that the Leader of the Opposition should have realised at 1.40 a.m. on Friday, 1st March that, when Gravesend fell to the Labour Party, there was no hope of maintaining a Conservative Government in office.
It would be difficult for me to pay tribute to all my predecessors over the last 20 years, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook). My constituency is so volatile that, since the war, I am its sixth representative. But I wish to pay tribute to my immediate predecessor, Mr. Roger White, for the way in which he served the Gravesend constituents, and to his predecessor, Mr. Albert Murray, who served the constituency most conscientiously.
486 This debate is about agriculture and prices. I cannot claim that my constituency is overwhelmingly agricultural, but I can claim that 100 per cent. of my constituents eat when they can afford to. They are concerned about prices, and not only about the price of food. They are concerned, as are the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central, about the price of housing.
There are many owner-occupiers in my constituency who are trying to keep up their mortgage repayments and facing an increasing burden in that direction. Just as every other hon. Member has in his constituency, I have in mine thousands of young couples who have been priced out of the housing market altogether over the last four years. Until four or five years ago, it was possible for young couples of modest means, even in the South-East of England, to buy a house. In general, those people are now priced out of the market altogether.
The situation now is such that for the many millions of young couples who want to buy their own houses, the prospect of the arrival of a family is not the joy that it should be. It is not even a minor inconvenience. It is a financial disaster. Therefore I welcome the proposals in the Gracious Speech to tackle the problem of house prices. I also hope that the Government will protect home buyers from the worst excesses of the commercial money markets.
I welcome also the proposals in the Gracious Speech to deal with the problems of pensioners, because they have probably been hardest hit by rising food prices. I say that because out of their pittance of a pension they need to spend the greater proportion to keep body and soul together. Therefore I applaud the pledge to increase pensions to £10 for a single person and £16 for a married couple. But I look forward not only to the early introduction of that Bill but also to the announcement of an early date for the implementation of those increases.
It is essential that we have regular reviews of pensions. But the greatest contribution that any Government can make towards helping the pensioners is to safeguard them from unnecessary price increases and to ensure that those which 487 occur are unavoidable. I ask the House to remember that no matter at what short intervals reviews take place, pensioners suffer an erosion of their living standard every time prices rise.
I also welcome the proposals in the Gracious Speech to introduce subsidies on basic foods to cushion the impact of world prices. I fail to understand objections from Opposition Members to subsidies. I cannot understand why it is considered permissible to intervene, for example, in the public sector and to hold down the cost of telephone rentals and calls, but not considered advisable for the Government to intervene on the essential of life—food.
I understand that there are objections to subsidies because they are universal and assist all members of the community irrespective of their means. I suggest that if this worries Opposition Members they should concern themselves far more with trying to ensure that this country develops a fair and redistributive tax system, so that instead of relying on selective benefits in the social services to assist the less-well-off, we can go ahead with universal benefits and ensure that those who enjoy them without perhaps needing them pay the greater contribution towards financing them.
I do not think we can discuss prices—especially food prices—without talking about the Common Market. No matter what attempts were made recently to hide the effect of Common Market entry, the people of this country—and certainly those of my constituency—are fully aware of its effects upon prices. They are even more aware of the future impact of membership under the present terms. We cannot afford the burdens of ever-increasing food prices or the drain on our balance of payments which will ensue for the privilege of those higher prices.
I welcome the pledge in the Gracious Speech that the Government… will seek a fundamental re-negotiation of the terms of entry to the European Economic Community.I welcome especially the use of the word "fundamental", because nothing short of that will satisfy the people of this country. I believe that this issue played a major part in the last election and that the people will welcome the Government's 488 promise to act quickly on their election manifesto, that not only will they renegotiate the terms of entry into the Common Market but that they will give the people of this country the chance that was given to the people of the Irish Republic, Denmark and Norway to say whether they wished to be members of the EEC.
§ 9.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Francis Pym (Cambridgeshire)
Whatever else we have had in the debate today we have had a fantastic crop of maiden speeches—14, I make it. I do not know whether that is a record, but it is a very large number. I have heard almost all of them. I heard part only of the speech of the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mrs. Colquhoun), and I missed the maiden speeches of the hon. Members for Merioneth (Mr. Thomas) and Cannock (Mr. Roberts)—if a second maiden speech can be called a maiden.
The range of subjects covered by those hon. Gentlemen was very wide indeed—from the distillations in the constituency of Banff to the astonishing productivity in letter writing of the predecessor of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook). A whole range of matters was covered and obviously it would not be right for me to comment on all of them. One thing was common to everyone who spoke today and that was the extraordinarily agreeable tributes paid to their predecessors, which I think were acceptable in all quarters of the House.
I was particularly glad to be present when the right hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. West) and the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) made their maiden speeches. This clearly is not the occasion to go into Northern Irish matters. I should like to set the record straight, however, in one respect. The right hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone certainly implied—I think he said—that Northern Ireland will not be forced into the Republic. Of course, that was never part of the policy followed by my party when in government or by the Labour Party when it was in opposition. It is not the Government's policy now, and there is no question of that arising.
Towards the end of his speech the right hon. Gentleman said, "I see Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom" 489 So do I, and so, I think, does practically everyone else in the House. It is wrong on an occasion like this, although we are not dealing with Northern Ireland, to let statements of that kind go unchallenged. To that extent I should like to put the record straight. The thought occurs to me that it might conceivably be appropriate—though it is not for me to say, let alone decide—to contemplate a debate on Northern Ireland at some time in the not too distant future when these matters could be thrashed out and discussed.
Whatever views may have been expressed earlier today about the speech of the right hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) all Members have given him a warm welcome on resuming his hat as Minister of Agriculture. I certainly join those ranks and, indeed, offer a welcome to the right hon. Lady in the office which she has assumed.
The Minister of Agriculture's office is always an important office, and never more so than at this moment. No one disguised, either in the General Election or in this debate, the problems facing the United Kingdom and its economy. The problems facing agriculture are part of that problem. It is not only that agriculture has some special difficulties at present, which I am sure can be overcome, but the farming community, being extremely responsible, has always recognised that its industry can thrive only in conditions and circumstances in which the nation is prospering. The one depends upon the other.
In times of national difficulty, agriculture has always made its special contribution, in peace and in war. Today the industry as a whole is in a robust state to contribute, and it certainly wants to do so. It is a question of creating the right climate of confidence in order to enable it to do so. For this reason, there is a heavy responsibility on the Minister.
When the Labour Government last assumed office 10 years ago their intentions towards the industry were splendid, not to say grandiose. On that occasion the reality worked out differently. I cannot help feeling that that "damned plan" had much to do with it. Nothing like that, I am sure, will be repeated now, but the reviews in the second half of the 1960s were far from satisfactory. 490 The 1969 review, for example, was described as the "worst let-down since 1920." I do not know whether that was a fair judgment, and I am not sure whether I am competent to make a judgment.
In view of the Gracious Speech, I had assumed that the right hon. Gentleman would produce no more such reviews. However, when I heard the speech of the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries this afternoon I did wonder, because he talked about repeating the performances of earlier Labour Governments.
§ Mr. Pym
I am not so sure. The right hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone gave the Minister a warm welcome and said that we expected him to be a Tom Williams. I have to disillusion him, for the simple reason that we know the right hon. Gentleman. We have had him before. I hope that he will not repeat those reviews. In so far as the paragraph in the Gracious Speech goes, this represents common ground between the right hon. Gentleman and myself. The debate is not about ends, but about means.
In the last three and a half years there has been a considerable change in both the performance and prospects of the industry. I should like to summarise briefly the reviews introduced during the previous Parliament. There was an interim review in October 1970 to make up lost ground. In 1971 the review increased the value of the guarantees by approximately £130 million, and the first stage of the interim levies was introduced. In 1972 the review provided a considerable injection of money beyond cost increases, with particular emphasis on stock production. I believe that this was regarded generally as a useful review from the industry's point of view.
The Minister said this afternoon that my party was inclined to help the agriculture industry only when an election was in progress. The evidence of the reviews I have just mentioned gives the lie to that totally and absolutely. In 1973 the review was the first in the European Community context, and the 1974 review, just published, produced in exceptionally difficult circumstances about which I shall say more in a moment, relieved an unprecedented situation in the dairy sector 491 by injecting £145 million into that sector alone.—[HON. MEMBERS: "Not enough".] It was a very useful amount, and it was, in fact, what the industry asked for at that time.
The result of that series of reviews has been dramatic. The figures speak for themselves and cannot be challenged. The gross capital formation in the industry increased by 134 per cent. compared with 65 per cent. under the previous Labour Government. Net incomes doubled compared with an increase of 20 per cent., and net product increased by 15 per cent. in three and a half years as against 5 per cent. in six years.
There has been a certain amount of discussion today about that increase in net product. The White Paper recently published shows that for all the commodities listed in one of the tables production as a percentage of total supplies has gone up in every case. Those figures demonstrate beyond any question of doubt the changed state of agriculture when we left office. It is a record of improvement of which the industry should be proud, together with my right hon. Friends the Members for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) and Grantham (Mr. Godber), who can certainly take full credit for what was achieved in those years.
Today's unprecedented circumstances are set out in the 1974 White Paper. They are the agricultural aspect of the consequencies and implications of the worldwide commodity price explosion. Paragraph 2 of the 1974 White Paper puts the position bluntly. It states:The agricultural industry has suffered unprecedented increases in costs since the last Annual Review. The world shortages of proteins and cereals during the summer and autumn led to rises of about two-thirds in the costs of feedingstuffs. Prices of proteins fell from their peak levels in July but have since tended to increase again, while cereals prices remained high throughout the Autumn and have risen further since. Other costs, including labour, machinery, oil and fertilisers, have gone up significantly and so have interest rates.The grain position is the common denominator and the fundamental cause of the present problems, particularly of the livestock industry. No one predicted the world shortage that arose, and future 492 forecasting is, as everyone knows, uncertain, to say the least.
I have a feeling that at today's prices the shortfall in supply is likely to be filled before too long, but I observe that all the forecasts of the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the United Nations, and OECD indicate that grain prices are unlikely to fall in the near future. However that may be, there has been created an imbalance—I agree with the hon. Gentleman about that—in our agriculture as well as in that of the rest of the world. Obviously, grain farmers have done well, but their advantage has been the disadvantage of livestock producers the world over. It is the adjustment of this imbalance that is most urgently required now, for the sake of the industry itself but no less for the sake of the consumer.
To hear some people talk, one would think that they thought the ruination of the producer was the salvation of the consumer, which is an upside-down argument if ever there was one. At present the most acute stress is in the pig sector. Apart from the effect of rocketing feed costs, the market has been seriously depressed, for several reasons. The three-day week has had its effect over the whole meat market, and a contributory factor has been the lack of confidence before the review in the dairy sector. The consequences of this, I hope temporary, lack of confidence meant that many—
§ Mr. Pym
I am coming to that. We dealt with the dairy industry in the review. I said that the pig sector was the worst affected, and I was giving reasons for that. There was a counteraction in the dairy section of the market due to the effect of the culled cows coming on to the beef market, which significantly depressed the price there, and thus consumers turned from pig products to beef.
I hope and believe that the review will have changed the position in the dairy sector. I am sure that it will, so that the side effect of the lack of confidence will no longer be felt.
493 As the right hon. Gentleman knows, in the review it was not possible to act directly and effectively in the pig sector, because the limit of the increase in price possible under Article 54 ruled out sufficient action.
One of the keys to the situation lies in Brussels. My right hon. Friend the Member for Grantham was working with his usual energy and characteristic thoroughness to negotiate adjusted monetary compensatory amounts that would bring the pig sector back into profitability, which clearly is the object of the whole exercise. Negotiations began some time ago at official level in the management committee and were to proceed on 11th March, the meeting which the present Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries—wisely, in the circumstances—postponed and which he is attending next week.
§ Mr. Biffen
Does my right hon. Friend agree that such is the seriousness of the situation for the British pig producer that it would be unfortunate if we placed ourselves at the mercy of our fellow competitors within the Community, especially the Danes? Therefore, we should be wise to reserve for ourselves the same unilateral action as apparently was taken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Grantham in respect of the dairy producers.
§ Mr. Pym
I do not think that he ever excluded that, and the right hon. Gentleman this afternoon for his part did not exclude it either. I was merely setting out the position as it was at the time and stating what action my right hon. Friend was taking about it. This is one aspect of it in Brussels, because there is this degree of unfair competition which ought to be righted. What was being sought—and should still be sought—was a significant adjustment to the level of the MCAs to ensure a higher level of return for pig producers on the British market, with the consequent effect on pork prices.
Whatever other thoughts or ideas the right hon. Gentleman has, I press him to conclude as quickly as he can the work that was begun by my right hon. Friend I am sure the right hon. Gentleman recognises the need of our livestock industry, and especially pigs, for an increase in price if production is to be maintained let alone increased at home, 494 which is his objective, as is clearly set out in the Gracious Speech.
That is the worst sector of the industry at present but the position is similar with beef. There is a need for a price adjustment for the same basic reasons, and again the right hon. Gentleman is taking up the negotiations in Europe in midstream. I recognise the difficulties and complications of that, the awkwardness of the timing, and so on, and for the sake of the welfare of the industry we wish him success in what he is going to do there next week.
A fine balance has to be struck in these matters in the joint and mutual interests of both consumer and producer. In the past, my right hon. Friend has laid great emphasis on the need to protect the interests of both. He is known in Europe as the only agriculture Minister to have fought at great lengths for the benefit of the consumer, and no doubt the right hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Lady will do the same.
One or two of the speeches this afternoon were made with the interests of the agriculture industry in mind. I am thinking particularly of the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Jones) who is an out-and-out producer man—no holds barred, everything for the producer—but it is not possible to deal with the matter in that way. One has to balance things finely between what the producer needs —and I agree that many things are lacking—and the needs of the consumer. It is in the long-term interests of the consumer as well as the producer that this balance should be made to relieve the existing maladjustment. There is real urgency about the matter. My right hon. Friend the Member for Grantham pointed this out on 21st February and he hoped to have a solution as he said, within the next few weeks. That was three weeks ago, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman can bring this matter to a speedy conclusion.
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman recognised and acknowledged in his speech that these problems exist no less in Northern Ireland than they do here. In some respects, the problems in Northern Ireland are even more difficult, especially in relation to transport costs, and I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman will keep in close touch with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for 495 Ireland and the Executive in Northern Ireland and be ready to help in every and any way that he can.
There are two other matters which I should like to mention in connection with Europe. The first is sugar. This is a complex subject in which I do not pretend to be well versed at present. I want to deal with the acreage aspect. With grain at its present price, one hears less of the demand for increased acreages at home than used to be the case—that has been my experience in my constituency—but I feel that it is important to fight for the largest possible increase in our quota from the European Community, though not at the expense of the Commonwealth sugar producers.
We know the interest that the French have in this matter, quite properly, and I ask the right hon. Gentleman not to let this aspect go by any default. We shall need to expand home-grown sugar production, and I trust that the matter will be given full and proper attention. It is the kind of situation in which one could find oneself acting too late, and that has to be avoided. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to bear that in mind. At the same time, it is necessary to ensure that the home-grown sugar industry maintains reasonable profitability on a fair competitive basis.
The other matter which has European overtones is glasshouses, referred to by my hon. Friends the Members for Wells (Mr. Boscawen) and Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler). The right hon. Gentleman has said that he will look into it. But the position is urgent and serious, because here, as in the case of every other business using oil, costs have risen dramatically. Unfortunately, these cost increases have not been reflected in the price of produce to the consumer. Thus, a most serious situation is developing. Growers have complained that foreign growers, especially Dutch and German growers, as they think, receive subsidies on their oil. If this were true it would be a very grave outlook.
Steps were taken by the previous Government to have this matter fully investigated. My right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Stodart), the former Minister of State, ordered an inquiry some weeks ago, as 496 this was clearly necessary so that the facts could be properly and authoritatively established. It is essential to know whether the basis of competition is fair or whether there is any distortion. My right hon. Friend had also instructed that the report be ready on 1st March for whoever would come into office on that date. I presume, therefore, that this document is in Ministers' hands, and I trust that the House will be informed about it at an early date. Action is obviously urgent.
On the subject of reports, I should like to pick up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) who talked about the O'Brien Report, which is, I believe, in the Minister's hands and which I imagine he intends to publish at the earliest possible moment.
I turn now to two quite different aspects of the Gracious Speech as it may affect the industry. The first is farm-workers' pay, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Earl of Ancram). It has never seemed right to some of us that this work force should be among the lower paid, although this has been the reality for many years. Only 10 years ago the minimum wage was at about the £10 level. I know that minimums often do not apply but, nevertheless, that was the minimum level then. Under the previous Labour administration that minimum rose from £9.50 to £13.15 during the six-year period.
During the last three and a half years the minimum rate has risen from £13.15 to £21.80. This rate of increase is still modest, but at least it is an improvement, and it is higher, as it ought to be, than the national average for that period. It is right that that should be so, because it was part of the built-in mechanism of the counter-inflation policy and part of its basic purpose to direct a more than proportional share of increases to the lower paid. Everyone accepted this as right and fair. It must now be said that unless the present Government create some machinery on pay that has the effect not only of protecting the lower paid but also of positively helping them, those in situations similar to that of farmworkers will find themselves disadvantaged. I know that this aspect is to be debated on Monday, but we on the Opposition side 497 of the House are very concerned about it from the point of view of the farm-workers. They must have their place in this debate.
The other matter to which I wish to refer is that of values and the position of the owner-occupier. Like oil and every other commodity, land prices have gone through the roof, and this, of itself, produces a variety of problems, including that of death duties. In the last Parliament some of my hon. Friends, and some of my hon. and learned Friends, were giving thought to the consequences of values at these new levels. From the point of view of a farming enterprise, these values are very much of a paper kind. The effects are particularly acute and, indeed, unfair to the point of harshness on many owner-occupiers who are, it seems, naturally and properly desirous of handing on their businesses to their sons and families. But these capital values, coupled with the relatively low returns that characterise the agricultural industry, make it almost impossible for many families to pass on a holding from one generation to the next. The implications of this are very serious for the structure of the countryside. Holdings are tending to increase in size. Indeed, successive Governments have encouraged this for sound economic and agricultural reasons, and we do not want to see the trend reversed, especially if it were to be brought about by some wholly extraneous cause.
I raise this aspect now because the Gracious Speech refers to the redistribution of wealth and implies that there will be big increases in public expenditure, which would have to be paid for somehow. I suppose that a Minister who does not happen to know much about the land—the Chancellor of the Exchequer perhaps—could conceivably be tempted to do something that might have wholly deleterious effects on some holdings. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to bear this in mind and, if necessary, to fight for the interests of the owner-occupiers in farming.
The right hon. Gentleman spoke this afternoon about the way in which the food side of his Department would be operated in future. I was more confused at the end of his speech than I was at the beginning about how many Fs there should be in MAFF. What is the position regarding the food section of the 498 Department—is it MAFF or MAF? There is confusion about this. There is talk of a war in Whitehall, which is not new. How is it to be sorted out? If it has been sorted out, what is the result? I have never worked in the Ministry, but I see dangers in splitting it up from the way it has been organised for many years.
The interests of both consumers and producers have to be finely weighed and balanced, and if responsibility is divided between two Ministers great difficulties may arise.
It has been suggested today from the Liberal Bench that it is a good idea to have two Ministers—one for the consumer and one for the producer. That is no doubt how the Liberals reconcile the problem of——
§ Mr. Stephen Ross
Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that one of the things which his Government could have done to help the agricultural industry was to avoid the enormous upheaval in land prices by backing out of the policy whereby people roll off capital gains tax and buy agricultural land and shares in agricultural holding companies?
§ Mr. Pym
That is a good point, but I am concerned with the balance which has to be struck between the interests of the consumers and the producers. If two Ministers are involved in this there will be a frightful battle. Will the right hon. Gentleman have female accompaniment when he goes to Brussels—whenever he may go there—in the person of the right hon. Lady? If not, will he negotiate on her behalf? If the right hon. Lady does not accompany him, will she accept what he has negotiated and whatever consequences it means for her and her Department? My view is that there is a strong case for food remaining with the MAFF—with two Fs.
The Opposition have been and still are dedicated to the expansion of the agricultural industry. We have shown by our deeds in the past three and a half years that we mean business and we shall wish to support the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues if he continues with the policy which we pursued. We know of the right hon. Gentleman's interest in the industry and the absence of even a mention of the word "agriculture" in the Labour Party's manifesto is compensated for only slightly by what 499 is contained in the Gracious Speech. Bearing in mind what the right hon. Gentleman said this afternoon, let him convert into deeds those words about agriculture. We must now take action to ensure that we grow every ton of food possible from our own soil. To do this, it is necessary to have a climate of confidence and a philosophy of expansion. We hope and trust that the present Government will continue the policy of the last Government and provide both these things.
§ 9.30 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection (Mrs. Shirley Williams)
I, too, begin by referring to the many maiden speeches we have heard today.
I am sorry that I cannot reply in any detail to the very moving contribution of the right hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. West), who, we hope, will make further contributions to our debates about agriculture and prices in the light of his very long experience of these subjects in Northern Ireland. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker). I think that all of us had brought home to us the terrible scale of the situation in Northern Ireland as it affects all communities by the indications he gave of what this would have meant had the same proportion of terror, murder and death been applied to the rest of the United Kingdom.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mrs. Colquhoun), whose felicitous description of Ministers of Agriculture gave me great pleasure. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Howells), who expressed a great deal of concern about the position of young farmers and farm workers in his constituency. I congratulate also the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Ancram), who indicated a number of questions which require answers but which, as he will appreciate, should be addressed to some of my colleagues rather than to me. He particularly raised the question of rural transport. I will ensure that this is brought to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport. We appreciated the hon. Gentleman's kind 500 remarks about his predecessor at Berwick and East Lothian.
We all of us miss Douglas Houghton, who used to represent Sowerby, but we give a strong and great welcome to his successor as Member for Sowerby (Mr. Madden) and share his enthusiasm for helping consumers.
The hon. Member for Merioneth (Mr. Thomas), the hon. Member for Banff (Mr. Watt) and others referred to the special problems with regard to feeding stuffs. A number of hon. Members on both sides of the House also referred to concern about the ending of the lime and fertiliser subsidies. I remind them that they must look to the last Government for responsibility in that matter.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Rodgers) said something with which I agree very much—that the members of the boards of new towns should be elected and not appointed. I can assure him of the sympathy of the Government with that sentiment.
The hon. Member for Banff said that his constituency was distinguished by having a great many distilleries. I assure him that one of these days I shall go there to drown my sorrows in view of the rather difficult post I hold.
I suppose that, since he is not quite a maiden, we can describe by hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts) as a sort of experienced maiden, which is a rather trendy thing to be these days. I think he satisfactorily fulfils that rôle.
My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Park) has, of course, the arduous task of succeeding, in Richard Crossman, one of the most eloquent and controversial Members of this House. I am sure that his very courteous and well-turned speech makes him a worthy successor.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Selby) said some very moving things about housing. I was also very struck by his combination of cleanliness and godliness in his concern for bread and soap. We shall take his concerns very seriously.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) spoke of housing and presented some striking statistics Many hon. Members will share his experience of seeing speculators taking away 501 the possibility of owner-occupation for more and more of our people. Those of us in the southern half of the country are very much aware of the scale of the problem we face in this respect.
The hon. Member for Gravesend (Mr. Ovenden) referred to another matter of deep concern to us all—particularly to Members on the Government side of the House—the effect of prices on the standard of living of pensioners.
The right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) has taken over a difficult pair of jobs. We recognise that he had a difficult task as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He is now not only shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland but, I understand, also the shadow Minister of Agriculture. He began his speech in a serious manner reflecting his concern for agriculture. We appreciated that. I am bound to say that as he moved towards the end of his speech I began to feel that we were witnessing the drama of Hamlet without the Prince.
I remind the right hon. Gentleman that this debate is supposed to be about agriculture and prices. It was striking that the right hon. Gentleman spoke exclusively about agriculture and said virtually nothing about prices, which showed, if I may say so, a suitable degree of reticence on his part. Perhaps 35,000 prices on after the promise of "at a stroke" is a good time to be silent. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not feel obliged to be silent in future and will explain the record of his own Government.
His speech was a serious one and had to be taken seriously, which I cannot say for the speech of his right hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior). It was what I think is sometimes known in the House as "good knockabout stuff". The right hon. Gentleman now shadows the Home Office. Perhaps as a man for all seasons he feels he can make the same speech about any Department he happens to shadow. His speech certainly had little to do with the extremely serious situation the country faces.
He described me as the Mary Poppins of this administration. He will recall that he was the Marie Antoinette of the last one. He will further recall that the fate of Mary Poppins was rather less 502 serious than the fate of Marie Antoinette. The right hon. Gentleman took up a peculiarly silly and ill-founded story by saying that the Labour Party had purchased the food for our television broadcast at Fortnum and Masons.
§ Mrs. Williams
I do not suppose that the right hon. Gentleman bothered to check his facts, any more than did his friend the hon. Member for Antrim, South. The truth is that the food came from a perfectly ordinary general shop in a perfectly ordinary London neighbourhood. The right lion. Gentleman might check his facts before just picking up any old story from any old newspaper and tossing it around the House.
We have rather come to expect that from the right hon. Gentleman. He went on to make harsh remarks about subsidies as if it were not known that as a result of his Government's decisions milk had been subsidised to the extent of £180 million a year. We have no quarrel with that, but he simply cannot accuse the new Government of what the old Government did as if it were a totally new policy. He went on to make some extremely bloodcurdling threats about profits and prices. He said, "We will not stand idly by and allow greater curbs to be placed upon the profits of the food industry." Again it was as if he simply did not know that his own administration was in power on 1st February when the Price Commission, established by that administration, proposed 10 per cent. cuts across the board on food retailing profits.
He spoke as if he did not recall that the Commission had, without any intervention by his administration at the time, proceeded to consult the food industry about 10 per cent. cuts across the board and he spoke as if he regarded it as being in some way the duty of the Opposition, as it never was the duty of the Government, to concern itself with something less than the interests of this country. He simply announced that the present Government would fall, that they would not be permitted to pursue consultations with the food industry.
I must tell him that the leaders of the food industry whom I saw, together with my right hon. Friend, last night, were 503 considerably more patriotic than the right hon. Gentleman. They are prepared to consider measures that they believe might be in the national interest as put forward by this administration, while the right hon. Gentleman simply announces his total opposition without even knowing what the proposals are.
§ Mr. Prior
The right hon. Lady knows perfectly well that the figures for profits that she produced during the election campaign were bogus in the extreme. In many cases they included profits earned overseas which have nothing to do with profits earned in this country. She knows, furthermore, that unless the profits of the food industry are kept at a reasonable level—and they are already lower than most other industries' profits—there will not be the investment which is needed. Will she give the undertaking that the Government will take no action to curb the level of profits now existing in the food manufacturing industry?
§ Mrs. Williams
I am bound to say that the right hon. Gentleman has left himself in the same dilemma. The truth of the matter is that we quoted profits in television programmes and indicated that we thought that they were too high. I have already given him the evidence that the Price Commission basically agrees with us. The commission is an independent body. It has proposed 10 per cent. cuts across the board. The right hon. Gentleman cannot pretend that it did not because it did so under his administration.
Further, the right hon. Gentleman offered no new policy to deal with prices. His party offered no new policies during the General Election. That was at a time when the country faced possible increases of 15 per cent. to 18 per cent. across the board. It surely behoves any serious party in the House to think as hard as it possibly can about how we are to avert the disaster of galloping inflation.
I do not deny that I have a daunting job at a daunting time. We have the largest balance of payments deficit in the country's history. Since October that situation has deteriorated more rapidly than at any time before. Between the end of 1972 and the end of 1973 we achieved a growth of industrial production 504 of 0.5 per cent. That was not because of the three-day week and the oil price increase and other factors. They did not affect the growth figures except at the very end of 1973. We know that during the past few months basic raw materials and fuel prices have gone up fast.
I shall come in a moment to the charge that the right hon. Gentleman has so unfairly made but first I shall give the House the annual rates of price increase for basic materials and fuel. Between November 1972 and April 1973 the annual rate of increase for basic raw materials and fuels was 30 per cent. Between May 1973 and November 1973 the annual rate was 50 per cent. Between November 1973 and January 1974 the annual rate was 90 per cent. For food, if we take the same three periods, the figures, on the basis of an annual rate, are not quite as bad. The rate was 32 per cent. for November to April 1973, 42 per cent. from May to November 1973 and 45 per cent. for November 1973 to January 1974.
The situation is so serious that I beg Members of all parties to consider what we can do about it without too much tossing about of abuse. The situation was very much worsened by the three-day week, which reduced gross domestic product by 10 per cent. in January and February and reduced industrial production by 20 per cent. to 25 per cent. The consequent effect of the three-day week on the prices of exports and on firms' margins is highly disturbing. We know the consequence in part of the rise in oil prices and in part we know of the consequence of the three-day week.
We now see forecasts of inflation in 1974 varying between the modest figure of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research of 14½ per cent., to the 15 per cent. of the Economist up to 17 per cent., which is the pessimistic forecast of the National Institute. Such figures lead to a danger that we shall reach levels of hyper-inflation where the situation becomes totally out of hand. We know that the situation has been exacerbated to some extent by the optimism of the previous Government, which led them to accept the threshold proposals which are now upon us.
505 On 18th July 1973 the then Prime Minister announced:The quality of threshold agreements is that they provide a firm reassurance which could only otherwise be provided by pressing for a much higher settlement."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th July 1973; Vol. 860, c. 530.]It was clear that when the previous Government were desperately trying to uphold stage 3 of their incomes policy they accepted threshold agreements on the gamble that commodity prices might fall.
On 21st January 1974, in a debate on "The Divided Nation", I said:The massive inflationary pressures, which the Price Commission admits through its chairman can no longer be contained, will trigger off the stage 3 threshold agreements as early as March or April this year."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st January 1974; Vol. 867, c. 1314.]We now know that to be true. We face the likelihood that threshold agreements will be triggered off. As right hon. and hon. Members know, every increase of 1 per cent. in the retail price index will lead to an increase of 40p per week on all wage settlements under the threshold. That means that anything that can be done to restrain prices is doubly important—important for the housewife and crucially important if we are to resist the literal slide to more and more rapid inflation which has to some extent been built into the situation by the desperate over-optimism of the previous Government.
§ Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South-West)
Does that mean that phase 3 is not only in force as the law of the land but will remain in force?
§ Mrs. Williams
Phase 3 is in force, and the hon. Gentleman will hear further information on this when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment speaks on Monday.
Because of the reference in the Gracious Speech to worldwide inflation, the Leader of the Opposition said,At last the right hon. Gentleman—he was referring to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—and his colleagues are prepared to recognise it—by which he meant worldwide inflation— 506After all, it is not the responsibility of the last Conservative Administration."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th March 1974; Vol. 870, c. 59.]On 15th February in a party political broadcast I said,We cannot control world food prices. Of course we cannot.In a subsequent election programme on 18th February, I said,… it would not be right to blame the Conservative Government for the increase in world food prices, because that is beyond their control, though I do not think it is the only factor in the increase in prices.It will not do for the Conservative Party now to traduce the attempt that we made to be absolutely frank with the public during the election and to pretend that we suppressed the knowledge about world food prices. I have quoted from the transcript exactly what I said and it will not do for the Opposition now to act as though the only factor was world prices when they know perfectly well it was not.
§ Mr. Tom Boardman (Leicester, South)rose——
§ Mrs. Williams
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman when I have finished my point.
We believe that there are other factors over which the Government certainly had control. The Government had considerable control over the failure of the floated pound. Their own economic policies drove the pound downwards, as some of the members of the Conservative Party have been honest enough to say. The previous Government's massive borrowing undermined much of the confidence in our currency. It was the previous Government's attitude to taxation and to the financing of public expenditure by the printing of money which led to their inflationary method of paying for expenditure instead of the adoption of a proper method of financing.
§ Mr. Boardman
As the Minister said that stage 3 was still in force, why does it not operate in respect of the miners? She will recall that her right hon. Friend once remarked that one man's wage increase is another man's price increase. Already we have an increase of nearly 50 per cent. in the price of coal as a consequence of the miners' settlement.
§ Mrs. Williams
Right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite are extremely impatient. The Government have already 507 done more in a week than the Conservative Government did in a year. They spend all their time pressing for more and more statements, all of which they will get if they will contain themselves for two or three days.
I will now move on to my own statement which concerns my Department. If right hon. and hon. Gentlemen will be kind enough not to interrupt, they will hear some information about my Department. The basis of our prices policy is that, first, we shall do everything in our power to limit the effect of inflationary pressures on the price of goods in the shops. I have outlined the scale of those inflationary pressures and I hope that no hon. Gentlemen will be unaware how great they are. The first element in our prices policy is that we shall do everything we can to protect the consumer from the effects of those inflationary pressures.
Second, we shall do everything that we can, especially in respect of those groups in the community for whom food and essential foodstuffs loom large in the make-up of the household Budget. We shall therefore be more fair to the pensioner and to the low-income family—to the groups that find it hard to make ends meet—than to anybody else, because we believe that to be right and proper in an inflationary situation.
We are therefore considering the subsidisation of essential food. Opposition Members have often criticised subsidies on the ground that they operate across the board. But they themselves surely recognise, as a result of their own experience in Government, the extreme limitations of means-tested benefits. The uptake of means-tested benefits is almost invariably disappointing. The administrative process is slow and complex and, perhaps more important than any of this, nothing adds to the poverty trap in which we are already so deeply embedded so much as an attempt to means-test further benefits.
We intend to put our proposals before Parliament at the earliest possible opportunity. I cannot now say in detail what those proposals will be. The House will recognise that the appropriate place for those proposals is the Budget. But we shall put before the House in the near future a Bill that will provide statutory 508 authority for expenditure required on food subsidies. The list of foodstuffs to be subsidised has not yet been finally fixed and requires careful determination.
We shall, however, make the list selective and we shall endeavour, above all, to concentrate on those goods that are relatively inelastic, where a change in price does not make a sudden unforeseen change in demand and, not least, on those foods that loom largest in the shopping basket of the groups which I have already described.
We also believe it is important to try to bring the subsidies in as rapidly as possible. To that end we have recognised that it will not be possible to use the mechanism of value added tax, because the delay involved in using such a mechanism would be very considerable. We believe that in the present situation speed is of the essence, and I do not believe that anyone in this House will be critical of the schedule that we have set ourselves.
I want to refer tonight to only one product, and to say that the major bakery companies have notified the Price Commission of their intention of making increases in bread prices on 25th March. I am in touch with the industry and with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and I am seeking to find the best means of arranging that these increases do not take effect in the shops. I shall be making a further statement to Parliament about this.
Next I want to say a word about price control. The present price code applies to manufacturing, distribution and service industries. I should like to pay a tribute to the considerable success of the Price Commission, granted the limitations of the code under which it operates, on stages 2 and 3. The Price Commission rejected 540 applications and modified 150 in the four months up to February.
But we believe that there are grave limitations in the code as it stands. We believe that the Price Commission can do a useful job, but we are urgently reviewing the price code itself to see how we can make it more effective. In particular, we are considering the basis of determination of control particularly over certain essential goods. Again, the House will be fully informed of the details of this, because any change in 509 the price code requires the approval by affirmative resolution of each House of Parliament.
The House will also recognise that legislative controls are necessary for the maximum fair prices to be established for subsidised goods, and legislation of this kind will be brought before it. However, I am embarking immediately on consultation with the appropriate elements in industry, with the trade, with consumer associations and with the trade unions, so that there may be the fullest possible discussion, on a basis of urgency, of all the matters which I have mentioned.
The legislation we have in mind will deal also with labelling, with the presentation of fair prices, and with unit price labelling. Here again, full details will be given to the House as soon as possible. But I want to make quite clear that the Government believe that it is important to protect the housewife, not by rather useless advice to her to shop around—as though no housewives worked, and as though no housewives had young children—but by making sure that she has the full evidence she needs to give herself the best value for money.
Therefore, we shall take powers to ask retailers to indicate the prices of particular classes of goods. We intend to make sure also that this is the responsibility of the retailer, since it is no part of our policy to reintroduce resale price maintenance over the whole range of goods.
Next, we propose to go ahead with one legacy from the last administration, the Consumer Credit Bill. We recognise that there are elements in it which are very important to the consumer. We shall go ahead with it, but my hon. Friend the Minister of State will let the House know of certain changes that we propose to that legislation.
Finally, on the whole question of the consumer and her—and his, for that matter—important rôle in the situation, we intend to encourage, to the best of our ability, the monitoring of prices, the hearing of complaints, and the use of local authorities as the basis of a true grassroots service for the consumer.
We believe that all the legislation that can possibly be passed is virtually useless unless the individual man or woman in 510 the High Street knows where to go or to whom to turn for the kind of support he or she needs.
I strongly endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby and other hon. Members who emphasised the importance of this rôle for consumers. We propose to support them, and, unlike the previous administration, to make local authorities the centre of our attack in this matter. We are grateful to those local authorities which have already taken action to set up shop-front consumer units and to lay on the expert advice of weights and measures inspectors, legal advisers and so on in order that the consumer may have a truly fair deal.
I believe that the Department of which I am at present the Secretary of State will survive and will survive changes of administration. I think that hon. Members on both sides are increasingly recognising, through developments, that we are moving not just into a period of short-term crisis but into a much longer period—here I agree with the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire—in which the saving of resources will be of the first importance not only to our own country but to the world as a whole. We shall have to think not just of financial budgets but of budgets which concern themselves with the resources of raw materials, food and energy in a way that will put the saving of them at a much higher priority than they have had in the past. We shall have to think again more seriously than we have done as a country in the past about the whole balance between consumer and producer interests. We have seen increasingly in these last few years how the consumer interest has become central to politics in a way in which it certainly was not five, 10 or 20 years ago. I believe that this task is well worth while. I believe it is one which, if we look to the truly important issues that face us, will call upon the imagination, the sense and vision of all.
It will be the task of my Department, for as long as I am Secretary of State, to put first and foremost the protection of the weak, those who are ravaged, terrified and worried by inflation to a greater degree than anybody else. Secondly, we shall do all we conceivably can to control these disastrous inflationary 511 pressures upon ordinary men and women.
Finally, I hope all right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House will recognise, not who is or who is not responsible that is a matter for further debate—but the true seriousness of the situation which faces this country and the efforts which this administration is making to meet its desperate task.
§ Debate adjourned.—[Mr. Pendry.]
§ Debate to be resumed tomorrow.