HC Deb 19 January 1981 vol 997 cc10-1
13. Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson

asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he proposes to take any steps to determine whether the restrictions in competition in the sale of milk are beneficial to consumers.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim

Restrictions on competition are normally a matter for the Director General of Fair Trading. I understand he is now considering whether to use his powers under the competition legislation over the supply of milk. If he does, then all aspects of the public interest will be taken into account in any subsequent investigation and recommendation.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

Since the rise in the price of milk over the past 12 months has been higher than the current rate of inflation, have the Government given any consideration to the free importation of milk? Or would that lead to the end of doorstep deliveries?

Mrs. Oppenheim

This is obviously a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The question of the ending of doorstep selling would be in the forefront of the mind of anyone considering any references on milk prices, milk availability and the price of milk in supermarkets. That is one side of the public interest, and it must be considered equally with the other side of that public interest.

Mr. Dubs

Cart the Minister give the House a better reassurance? Does she not agree that the vast majority of people in this country think it essential that doorstep deliveries should continue? May we have a clear statement from the Government that they will do all that is possible to protect those deliveries?

Mrs. Oppenheim

I think that the hon. Gentleman is probably right and that a majority of people would prefer the continuance of at least a partial, if not an entire, doorstep delivery service. No doubt the Director General of Fair Trading will bear that in mind. If he makes a reference, the public interest and, indeed, public opinion will be a matter for the Monopolies and Mergers Commission to consider in making its final report and recommendations. The criteria of the legislation are drafted in such a way that the Commission must take note, in its final recommendations, of all aspects of the public interest.

Mr. John Fraser

Does the right hon. Lady recognise that the pure pursuit of competition can sometimes have adverse effects and put up prices? Estate agents' fees are an example of that. The ending of doorstep deliveries would rob us of a cheap source of protein and would only build up a surplus inside the EEC, to which we have to contribute.

Mrs. Oppenheim

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows—I am not accusing him of being disingenuous—one of the purposes of the Competition Act is to deal with distortions in competitions of this nature. The whole question of the doorstep delivery of milk is important. I believe that it affects a majority of consumers in this country. There is no question of its being abolished. The Government's position is clear, namely, the Government will follow whatever course is the public interest. Other distortions of competition are matters for the Director General to pursue under the Competition Act.

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