HC Deb 30 October 1980 vol 991 cc674-6
2. Mr Canavan

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what has been the average percentage increase in food prices since May 1979.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Peter Walker)

In the 17 months between May 1979 and September 1980 food prices, as measured by the general index of retail prices, rose by 15.6 per cent., compared with a rise of 25.2 per cent. in the retail price index as a whole. The House will be delighted to see that over the past three months the food price index has shown a slight fall.

Mr. Canavan

Is not the Minister ashamed of that disgraceful record, after 17 months of Tory government? How much of that increase was due to the absurdities of the common agricultural policy? Can he assure us that any so-called decrease in our Common Market contribution will not be paid for simply by increased food bills for families in this country?

Mr. Walker

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for the fact that my reply did not fit in with his well-prepared supplementary question. If he suggests that those figures show a monstrous and shaming policy, I point out that the performance is much better than the average increase in food prices during every year of the previous Labour Government.

Mr. Peter Mills

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if other industries, particularly those which the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) represents, had the same track record as agriculture in price rises, productivity and lack of strikes, we should not be in the mess that we are in now?

Mr. Walker

In the interests of British politics, I should be grateful to my hon. Friend if he would give the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) a "teach-in".

Miss Maynard

Does the Minister agree that there is a connection between food and farm prices? Does he remember the speech that he made at Wye college last week, when he said that in 1960 we produced 60 per cent. of our food, and that we are now approaching 80 per cent.? Did he not further say that in the past 20 years there had been a 150 per cent. improvement in the productivity record of the agriculture industry? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if, as the hon. Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) said, we had that throughout industry, we should have a miracle in this country and throughout the world? Therefore, is it not a scandal that farm workers' wages are still £33 per week below the average?

Mr. Speaker

Order. With every respect, many of those questions could be related to several later questions.

Mr. Walker

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. There has been a substantial improvement in productivity, and a very substantial improvement in wages in the agriculture industry, which is right in view of its freedom from restrictive practices and strikes.

Mr. Colin Shepherd

Does my right hon. Friend agree that our food producers have received price increases that have been much lower than the rate of inflation? Does that not constitute a remarkable track record for the whole industry?

Mr. Walker

Yes. Agriculture has made an enormous contribution to the battle against inflation, as the figures that I have announced to the House today show.

Mr. Mason

Is it not a fact that because of a series of green pound devaluations and an artificially high rate of sterling there is a United Kingdom positive compensatory amount of about 10 per cent? Although our food exporters may be benefiting from that, is there not a tax on food imports to this country which is likely to increase food prices by about 5 per cent? Is it not time that the right hon. Gentleman considered a green pound revaluation to reduce prices, give our consumers a better deal and help to tackle inflation?

Mr. Walker

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for asking that question, because it gives me the opportunity to clear up some incredibly distorted comments that have appeared in certain sections of the press. If I were to eradicate the whole of the present MCA advantage to Britain, the effect on the retail price index would be ⅓ per cent. The headlines that talk about an 8 or 9 per cent. tax on food give a totally false impression. The Labour Party constantly points out the disadvantage to British industry of a high rate of sterling, so it should not be disappointed when there is a European mechanism that stops that disadvantage from occurring in agriculture.

Mr. Mason

May I take it from what the right hon. Gentleman has said that he has no intention of revaluing the green pound? Does he accept that if the present situation continues he will be bound to agree to a general increase in food prices at the annual price review?

Mr. Walker

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there have always been discussions on the relativity of MCAs and prices, and I am sure that such discussions will take place at the coming price review. I assure him that at the present time I have no intention of revaluing the green pound.