HL Deb 15 June 1972 vol 331 cc1120-3

3.37 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 will appoint fair meat price officers for each area, to fix fair meat prices which will have the force of law.


No, my Lords. It would be neither practicable nor desirable to attempt to operate a system of price control.


My Lords, if the Government can have fair rent officers to put up rents, why can they not have fair meat price officers to keep down the price of meat? Is the noble Earl aware that since last October prices have gone up by 27 per cent.? Does he really expect housewives to deny themselves the purchase of beef, and will the Government take any steps at all to try to keep prices down?


My Lords, in fact, as I am sure the noble Lord knows, there is at the moment a world shortage of beef which has corresponded with a decline in home-produced beef. It is a fact that over the past few weeks prices have risen, but it appears that the price rise is now past its peak.


My Lords, is it not a fact that for many years the British farmer has been producing the best meat in Europe, first-class meat, at the cheapest rate and it is now about time that he had some slight breakthrough? Will my noble friend further agree that what is proposed would be completely contrary to the regulations of the E.E.C., which we may be joining in the next six months?


My Lords, I entirely agree that British beef is indeed the best; and that is the reason why my right honourable friend has spent quite a lot of time trying to encourage the output of British agriculture.


My Lords, is not one of the answers that the Government should check the export to the Continent of very good English cattle, which has already been heavily subsidised by the British taxpayer?


My Lords, that would not provide the answer which the noble Lord wants, because if exports were stopped the Continental buyers would merely go to other countries and buy in their place the food which would otherwise be imported into this country.


My Lords, I rise to support my noble friend Lord Leatherland, and to ask whether the Government are aware that during the past three weeks beef prices have fallen by about £2 per cwt. live weight? Can the Government give me some assurance that the retail price of beef has fallen in like proportion?


My Lords, in fact, the Smithfield wholesale prices—


Retail prices are what we want.


—passed their peak during last week. The noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, will know that it takes some time for new wholesale prices to find their way through into the retail shops. It is merely a question of time.


My Lords, can my noble friend confirm, bearing in mind the immensely complicated nature of the meat trade, that the functions of a fair meat price officer—who is concerned not just with beef but with all meat—such as is suggested by the noble Lord opposite, would be quite impossible to carry out; and is not this whole suggestion totally unrealistic?


My Lords, I am bound to say that I entirely agree with my noble friend. I thought that it was almost as erroneous to compare meat price officers with rent officers as it would be to compare the intelligentsia with the intelligent.


My Lords, does this not show that on the Government Front Bench there are far too many Guardsmen and not enough Beefeaters?


My Lords, would the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, agree that any such experiment as price-fixing in meat would involve, if there were not to be socially disturbing shortages of beef, the institution at the same time of a scheme of meat rationing?


My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Robbins, While one sympathises with the principle behind Lord Leatherland's question, his suggestion would be totally impracticable because there are hundreds of different types of cuts throughout the country.


My Lords, are there not also hundreds of different kinds of houses? Yet the Government's rent officers are going to be able to grapple with that problem. I must congratulate the noble Lord on skipping out of this question like a sprightly young heifer, but does he think that housewives are going to be convinced by this exhibition of Government inactivity?


It is not a question of Government inactivity. Even this Government are unable to affect world-wide shortage and world-wide demand. At the moment there is a shortage of beef, prices throughout the world have gone up, but they are likely now to have passed their peak.


My Lords, if there is a shortage of beef why have we had so much to spare that we have been able to send supplies to Common Market countries?


If, when they were in power, the noble Lord's Government had done more to expand British agriculture we might not be in this position to-day.


My Lords, is it customary for a noble Lord to make an unwarranted attack on the section of the community called "the intelligentsia"? Is the noble Lord aware that we are well aware that this section is not well represented on the Government Front Bench, with the possible exception of the noble Earl, Lord Cowrie? I would suggest that they turn their attention not to attacking the intelligentsia but to giving intelligent answers to your Lordships' House.


My Lords, I was not under the impression that my noble friend Lord Ferrers was casting any aspersions on the intelligentsia. I thought he was merely trying to distinguish between the intelligentsia and the intelligent. I am glad to know that the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, thinks that we are all so highly intelligent.


My Lords, is it fair to deprive the French of our beef, having regard to the promises made by M. Pompidou and others about the vast benefits that we are going to derive when we enter the Common Market? Is it not fair that we should sacrifice something for these great benefits? Or can the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, say that one of the benefits of going in is that we are going to have cheap beef?


We are delighted that the French should know how good British beef is, so that when we go into the Common Market British farmers will be able to benefit.

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