HC Deb 21 May 1979 vol 967 cc673-5
3. Mr. Thorne

asked the Secretary of State for Trade whether he will institute legislation to obtain a six months price freeze on essential foodstuffs and other goods.

4. Mrs. Renée Short

asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he will take powers to control food prices in general.

The Minister for Consumer Affairs (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim)

Powers already exist to regulate the price of food and certain other goods. The previous Government only used those powers in respect of food covered by their subsidies programme. I expect to use them only to protect funds received from the EEC to subsidise food prices for British consumers.

Mr. Thorne

Is it the Minister's intention, in common with all previous Tory Ministers doing her job, to put the heaviest burden upon the backs of the weakest sections of society?

Mrs. Oppenheim

That is precisely what the last Government did. It is not possible to impose a freeze on the prices of food or other goods where costs to producers are increasing without either creating shortages and causing some of those items to disappear from the shelves altogether, or causing economic damage, endangering jobs and undermining the longer-term interests of consumers.

Mrs. Short

Does the Minister agree that the figures that she gave during the election campaign about the effect of reducing the green pound to parity were entirely a figment of her own imagination? Is she aware that the EEC Commission has now produced figures to show that the effect of doing so would be to put about 11p or 12p a pound on butter? If the Minister is not prepared to take any steps to control food prices, why does she not resign?

Mrs. Oppenheim

I cannot anticipate statements that will be made by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but remind the hon. Lady of the statement made by my right hon. Friend in the House last Friday, when he said: I totally support the Commission's view of the necessity to freeze common agricultural prices … There can be no possible argument for adding still further to the surpluses"—[Official Report, 18 May 1979; Vol. 967, c. 652.]

Mr. Emery

Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that any postponement in price increases only builds up to a point where, when a price increase is granted, there is a very much higher burden for the ordinary purchaser to deal with? Will she assure the House that the nationalised industries will not be required to limit their prices so that we shall not see the type of major increases that occurred under the Labour Government?

Mrs. Oppenheim

I assure my hon. Friend that in our new competition Bill full account will be taken of any restrictive practices or limitation of competition in the nationalised industries.

Mr. Gordon Wilson

Does the right hon. Lady realise that food prices in Scotland are higher than they are in other parts of the United Kingdom? If she intends to abolish the Price Commission, how will she carry out the promised survey into the reasons for higher prices in Scotland in order to keep prices in Scotland more under control?

Mrs. Oppenheim

I am aware of the regional variations in prices, which was a matter examined by the Labour Government. However, the Labour Government had five years in which to show what their policies could do on prices, during which period we had the worst price inflation in nearly 400 years. The electorate rightly rejected Labour and their failed policies in favour of a Government committed to tackling the root causes of inflation and strengthening competition. These are policies which have succeeded in other countries and will benefit consumers most in this country.