HC Deb 20 May 1974 vol 874 cc14-6
14. Mr. Scott-Hopkins

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection whether, in considering which foodstuffs to subsidise, she takes into account the need for ensuring sufficient supplies of basic foodstuffs.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

Yes, Sir. Measures to ensure adequate supplies of food are primarily a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and I keep in close contact with him in developing the subsidy programme.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

In view of all the supplementary questions we have just heard on a previous Question, does not the Secretary of State realise that there is grave anxiety about the future of our food supplies concerning not only dairy products but beef and many other foods as well? Does she not consider that the £730 million subsidy she is paying to the consumer would be better employed in giving a subsidy on the feeding stuffs which farmers use to produce what the housewife wants? Will the right hon. Lady consider changing the system?

Mrs. Williams

The supplementary question from the hon. Member reflects his awareness of the fact that it is very difficult for me to answer Questions dealing with matters which are the direct responsibility of another Minister. Of course it must be the concern of my Department that supplies are adequate. I am in close touch with my right hon. Friend and we shall take steps, should it be necessary, to do as the hon. Member suggests. As he will be well aware, there is a distinction between producer and consumer subsidies in that we cannot be sure that producer subsidies will directly benefit the consumer.

Mr. William Hamilton

Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that if there were to be a reversion to producer subsidies she would take account of the fact that some farmers can do without them? Can she given an assurance that the NFU would put forward a proposal to base these subsidies on a means test?

Mrs. Williams

The second part of the question would be one for a policy decision by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture. On the first part, there has been a substantial increase in the incomes particularly of arable farmers over the last two years, but that has not been reflected in the same way in the incomes of livestock farmers.

Mrs. Knight

When the Secretary of State is considering which foodstuffs to subsidise, will she bear in mind that she will be up to her neck in anomalies, particularly concerning bread, if she is not very careful? Does she intend to put a subsidy on flour which is used by many women to make bread, since there is a subsidy on bread?

Mrs. Williams

The hon. Member must wait and see. Of course we cannot make a move on any subsidies until the Price Commission has decided whether a price increase is justified. We cannot therefore consider subsidising products until there has been an application for a price increase for bread and flour.

Mr. Evelyn King

Did the Secretary of State hear, as I think I heard, the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) say that beef producers were not in need of a subsidy? [HON. MEMBERS: "He did not say that."] Will she take this opportunity to repudiate that statement forthwith? Is it not the case that everyone who is producing beef is now producing every animal at a loss, and is not the beef industry worse off than it has been at any time during the last 10 years? Will the right hon. Lady acknowledge that fact?

Mrs. Williams

I do not have to defend my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) from remarks he did not make. The hon. Member certainly misheard my hon. Friend. On the second point, we are aware that there are difficulties in the beef and pigmeat sectors. Steps are being taken by the Government to meet the crisis, which was in the making many months before our return to office. We shall consider whether further steps are necessary.

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