HC Deb 24 May 1976 vol 912 cc7-10
5. Mr. Cartwright

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection if she will make a statement about the operation of the Price Check Scheme.

13. Mr. Norman Lamont

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what proportion of total family expenditure is currently covered by the Price Check Scheme.

17. Mr. Steen

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection whether she plans to include any additional commodities in the Price Check Scheme.

26. Mr. Giles Shaw

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection how many reports the Price Commission has made to her Department in exercise of its responsibility for monitoring the Price Check Scheme; and what was the substance of those reports.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

The Price Commission has reported encouragingly on the prices of items in the Price Check Scheme, which is now half way through its six-month life. Of 43 groups of products covered by the scheme, the prices of four had increased, but less than 5 per cent.; 33 had remained stable within half of 1 per cent.; six had actually fallen during the two months of the scheme. This picture is confirmed by information gathered from leading retailers by the Retail Consortium.

I have agreed to the withdrawal of car batteries from the scheme, under the agreed withdrawal clause, because of a sharper than expected increase in the price of imported lead. This makes little difference to the coverage of the scheme, which amounts to between 15 and 20 per cent. of consumers' expenditure. In addition, many retailers have added items of their own choice to the scheme, such as additional lines of clothing, footwear and food.

Mr. Cartwright

I thank my right hon. Friend for that encouraging report. However, does she not accept that many housewives simply do nut understand what the red Price Check triangle means, and that by and large retailers have not done enough to ensure that their staff can explain the scheme to the public? In any future development of voluntary price restraint, will she bear in mind the paramount importance of ensuring that the buying public understand what it is all about?

Mrs. Williams

I accept that in some shops there is no indication of precisely what lines and ranges the scheme covers, although my Department has made every possible attempt to persuade the trade associations of the importance of this. I think that my hon. Friend will have seen considerable improvements in the past few weeks. I would stress that, with anything like the Price Check Scheme, with every month that passes the scheme becomes more valuable to the housewife, because it guarantees stability of prices.

Mr. Shaw

Would the Secretary of State agree that, with every month that passes, it becomes more confusing to the housewife? Is it not a fact that, with the withdrawals of beer, cigarettes and bread from the scheme, it does not really cover, as was originally intended, the full 20 per cent. of goods, but that the rules have been altered in such a way that the right hon. Lady can claim that it does? Is it not a fact that the scheme covers only about half of what was originally intended? If it is half a glass of rather indifferent wine, does she not agree that there is naught but the lees to brag of?

Mrs. Williams

The hon. Gentleman always tries to be fair, so I think he will agree that there was no attempt by me to prevent the brewers from withdrawing from the scheme and that, as a result of the Budget, requests came from the brewers to remain within the scheme because, they said, there would have to be increases in their prices, apart from tax, otherwise. It was in that light that we kept them in the scheme, excepting tax, which was understood by them. The same is true of cigarettes. It has been made quite clear by the Brewers Society that it restricted its prices more than it would have done if the scheme did not exist and that the increases will be due to the tax and not to increases on their own part.

Mr. Tom King

Has the Secretary of State any evidence that the changes and the variation of prices which she has announced would not have happened without the Price Check Scheme? Did these manufacturers whose prices have stabilised give any indication of increases in their prices if there had been no Price Check Scheme? The sum of £1 million has been spent on this very expensive scheme. Has the Secretary of State any evidence to show that it is actually contributing one jot to the control of prices?

Mrs. Williams

The hon. Gentleman cannot have been listening, because I gave the example of the Brewers Society, which shows exactly what he has asked me. The CBI and the Retail Consortium have both indicated that firms have come within the scheme as a result of anticipating falls in labour costs which would not have occurred had there not been such a scheme. I think that the hon. Gentleman should accept both the CBI's and the Retail Consortium's willingness to cooperate rather than make the remarks he has just made.

Mr. Ioan Evans

I think that we all realise that, if there is to be a restraint in incomes, we must tackle the problem of inflation and that this scheme has obviously worked. Will my right hon. Friend therefore continue to strengthen the scheme in the months and years ahead and reject the sabotage which the Opposition attempted when it was introduced?

Mrs. Williams

A situation in which 39 out of 43 items have either fallen in price or increased in price by less than ½per cent. is one which my hon. Friends would do well to applaud and, indeed, to publicise.