HL Deb 21 February 1963 vol 246 cc1437-40

3.4 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are prepared to publish the farm or first-hand selling prices and the retail prices of some fresh fruit and vegetables where requisite information in the desired form is available to them.]


My Lords, in my answer of February 7 I mentioned fresh fruit and vegetables as examples of commodities which change less than others and in fewer characteristics between the farm and in the shopping-bag. But I refrained from undertaking to publish statistics of the retail prices of these because they vary so greatly from week to week and place to place. I am afraid I see no prospect of working out reliable averages of retail prices for the country as a whole, nor of making reliable farm and shop comparisons. The available information is insufficient for either purpose.


My Lords, I am sorry, but I find that Answer quite unacceptable. Does the noble Lord recall that on February 7 he told the House that information in the desired form was available for some fresh fruit and vegetables? Is he aware that I am quoting from Hansard and those were his exact words? May I ask, arising out of that, if information in the desired form is available, why it cannot be published? May I ask, secondly, whether the noble Lord is aware that I have not yet asked him to publish the information which he was good enough to say he would?—because I wanted to clear up this mystery about the fresh fruit and vegetables and, when we had cleared that up, I was hoping that, with his collaboration, to embark on stage two of the operation.


My Lords, to answer the second question first, I am aware that the noble Lady has not asked me for the answer that I could give, and she has asked me for the answer that I did not say I could give. The difficulty in this whole question (I know the noble Lady appreciates it up to a point) is that of comparing like with like. In trying to attend to the noble Lady's requirements, I recalled a piece of legislation, which caused me a great deal of mental anguish at the time and which I had hoped never to have to recall, and, in particular, I recalled a certain amiable passage of words that I had in Committee with the noble Lady's noble friend Lord Stonham. I am thinking of the Weights and Measures Bill, 1961. I have looked up the passage in the OFFICIAL REPORT of November 22 of that year, at column 771 [Vol. 226]. In moving a particular Amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, reminded us that vegetables consist of from 75 per cent. to 90 per cent. of water, and thus … not only will fruit and vegetables lose weight relatively quickly, but their living nature precludes any method of pre-packing to prevent it". He gave results, in his indefatigable way, of actual tests on various vegetables showing the amount of evaporation in 48 hours after packing when wrapped in polythene packages. This is what he then told us [col. 772]: Brussels sprouts consist of 80 per cent. water. After two days in cotton netting, they lost 8 per cent., that is, 1¼OZ. in the pound. Spinach has a moisture content of 85 per cent., and it loses 7 per cent.—1 oz.—in 48 hours after being packed". The noble Lord gave us other examples, all of which underline and document the difficulties I would have in meeting the noble Lady's wishes to-day, or, I fear, at any other time.


My Lords, may I, with true feminine tenacity, stick to the point which I think is embarrassing the noble Lord? May I ask him why, as he told me on February 7 that this information was available, and, furthermore, was available in the desired form, it cannot be published?


My Lords, possibly I do not recall as well as the noble Lady does my exact words, but my memory of what I said is that fresh fruit and vegetables were among those which change less than other commodities. I do not think I said that figures for them were available or could be made available. But in further answer to the noble Lady's question (and I will try to be brief), I have looked at this and, as to the pith of her question, what I will try to do is to find certain picked commodities which lend themselves better to such figures. I have had in mind, as a matter of fact, rhubarb and swedes, which seem to be the least volatile of the commodities for our joint purpose, and I found to my surprise that swedes varied in the course of one week between 8s. at Newcastle and 24s. in Cardiff per cwt., and rhubarb, 85 per cent. of which is grown for a rather gloomy reason in my own neighbourhood of the West Riding of Yorkshire, varied from 7d. to 1s. 2d. per lb. wholesale, in the very neighbourhood of Leeds in which it is produced in the period of one week. I am not trying to bamboozle anyone, and least of all the noble Lady, but I am endeavouring to point out the difficulties which face us in trying to give her figures which will be anything but misleading; and the last thing I want to do is to mislead the noble Lady. I will do my best to pick out commodities.


My Lords, while realising that Question Time is not a time for debate, may I ask whether it is not true that the noble Lord has erred on this particular occasion more than I have? May I ask him why he has still not answered my Question? I assume that he cannot. The words that I quoted are from the OFFICIAL REPORT. To bring this point to a close, might ask the noble Lord whether, if I put down a similar Question next week, he could answer the point I make: whether the information that is now available in the desired form will be published?


My Lords, it depends what the noble Lady means by "the desired form". I have tried to make plain—it would seem without success—that the form of information which the noble Lady desires is not available, and I do not think the form in which it exists is the form in which she would desire it. I will, however, try to pick out certain commodities to see whether the figures we have or can obtain on this matter will be of any use to the noble Lady. If she puts down a Question next week, I will try to go as far as that.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that he has made very heavy water of this? Before he answers my noble friend's Question next week, will he look at the Fruit Traders' Journal, which gives the market wholesale prices payable for the main fruit and vegetables, and, at the same time, in the London area obtain retail prices for similar goods from reputable sources? I think that this would give all the answers that my noble friend, and indeed all of us, want.


My Lords, I am only too anxious to help, but in point of fact I do not think the method of finding or presenting figures that the noble Lord has in mind is in any way comprehensive. Unless we can offer comprehensive figures, they are liable to be misleading, and, as I have already said, I am trying to avoid misleading anyone.


My Lords, are not all figures liable to be misleading? I really think that that is a very poor answer. Surely it is possible to put a little footnote at the bottom of each table of figures saying "Possible sources of error".


My Lords, were we not told during the passage through this House of that ill-fated Weights and Measures Bill—from which the noble Lord has quoted from Hansard this afternoon—that the one thing that Bill was not was a prices Bill? How, therefore, is that matter relevant to this Question, which is about comparative prices?


Simply because, as I tried to make the point, it is very difficult to compare like with like in weight of fruit or any other commodity.

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