HC Deb 07 February 1977 vol 925 cc1033-5
10. Mr. Giles Shaw

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what the average price of the standard loaf was in the three weeks starting on 4th January 1977; and what the average price was in December.

18. Mr. Corbett

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection whether he will make a statement on bread prices.

19. Sir George Young

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection when he next expects to meet the Federation of Master Bakers.

Mr. Hattersley

In January the average price of a large white sliced loaf was about 20½p, against 19½p in December. However, in some supermarkets prices did not rise by the 1p permitted at the beginning of January. In others prices were temporarily forced up by the action of some deliverymen. I am glad to say that this action has now ended. During recent discussions on prices I have met representatives of all interested parties, including both the Federation of Bakers and the National Association of Master Bakers, but I have no immediate plans for further meetings.

Mr. Shaw

Now that the Mad Hattersley's tea party is over, the consumer is entitled to ask who is better off. Is it the consumer, who was led to believe that there would be substantial reductions in the price of a standard loaf, of up to about 8p? Is it the shopkeeper, whose supplies of bread were disrupted? Or is it the unions, who believed, at least in part, that their members' jobs were in jeopardy? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this piece of intervention has caused nothing but shambles and chaos from start to finish?

Mr. Hattersley

No, Sir.The hon. Gentleman calls it intervention. It was a singularly strange sort of intervention, as I was pulling out of Government intervention in the industry. It worked in the end exactly as I had hoped. The hon. Gentleman is wrong in almost all his suppositions, not least that the unions were against what I did. Only one objected. The Transport and General Workers Union and the General and Municipal Workers Union both supported it. As a result of their support and what has come about, the only claim that I ever made will now be realised. In some shops the price of the standard loaf will be lower than it would otherwise have been. The newspapers over the past five days have demonstrated that very clearly.

Sir George Young

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that housewives are now thoroughly confused by his posture on bread prices? The right hon. Gentleman speaks of reductions. Increases in fuel and flour costs and the removal of the subsidies must mean that prices will rise. Will the right hon. Gentleman now tell the housewives what will happen to bread prices over the forthcoming months?

Mr. Hattersely

What I have said almost ad nauseam for six weeks is that, as a result of the policy which the House has discussed, and which came into operation on 4th January, the price of bread will be lower in some shops than it would otherwise have been. That is the result of the operation of competitive forces. What I hope the hon. Gentleman will realise, although some newspapers even today do not, is that if one allows competitive forces to work one cannot say at what level they will eventually settle down. This must be the result of competition.

Mr. Heffer

As my right hon. Friend obviously tried to adopt a certain part of Tory policy in this matter, and it has not been successful, does he agree that the lesson is never to adopt it again?

Mr. Hattersley

I do not believe that competition is a Tory instrument. It was our right hon. Friend the previous Prime Minister who introduced the Monopolies and Restrictive Practices (Inquiry and Control) Act 1948, the great protection of competition in this country. I have an interesting quotation from Lenin about competition, which I shall gladly send to my hon. Friend. I believe that my duty is to provide whatever instruments I can—competition or intervention—to bring prices down whenever that is possible.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim

If the right hon. Gentleman's negotiations were a success, as he has claimed, why did he wait six weeks before entering into them. When he knew that any increase in discount would immediately be offset by an application to the Price Commission for higher prices, why did he enter into that rather shady public relations operation, which backfired on its originator and certainly confused consumers?

Mr. Hattersley

I do not think that it was on me that speeches about bread prices backfired. If the Daily Mail of 13th January last year is to be believed, there were calls from the Tory Party for the hon. Lady's resignation. But that is neither here nor there. I allowed the forces of the market to operate. That must mean that the industry—bakers, retailers and consumers—determines the price in the end. The hon. Lady constantly called in an intemperate way for intervention by me. If I had done as she asked, I believe that the dispute would have continued. A week ago it settled down in the way that I had said it would.