§ Mr. Arthur Lewis
asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection whether he will publish in the Official Report a detailed statement showing to what extent since July 1975 he has been approached to take action to control and reduce the price of potatoes in general and chips and frozen chips in particular; and what action he has taken and with what results to date.
§ Mr. Maclennan
Between the summer of 1975 and August 1977, when potatoes were in reduced supply because of the drought, and prices, in consequence, rose 277W sharply, a considerable number of complaints were received from hon. Members, consumer organisations, trade unions and the general public. The possibility of a statutory maximum price was carefully considered, but rejected on the grounds that, apart from difficulties of effective enforcement, it would tend to exacerbate the physical shortage by driving potatoes off the open market, increasing consumer demand and reducing the commercial attractiveness of imports.
The Price Commission regularly monitored prices and distributors' margins for fresh potatoes from the beginning of 1976 to September 1977, but found no evidence that distributors had made excessive profits from the shortage. In December 1977 the average retail price, as measured by the Commission, had fallen to 3.8 pence per pound compared to its level of 10.8p a year earlier.
Since the late summer of last year there have been several complaints from hon. Members and the general public about the price of chips in fish and chip shops as well as from some hon. Members and the managing director of a chain of takeaway restaurants about the price of frozen chips. My Department has pursued these complaints with the National Federation of Fish Friers, the Potato Processors' Association and the Price Commission. There have been some price reductions for chips in fish and chip shops, although the fish friers face other cost increases which are partly being borne on the price of chips. The Price Commission has powers to investigate particular price increases. My right hon. Friend has no clear statutory powers to control or reduce the price of frozen chips except following a recommendation by the Price Commission following a sectoral examination under the Price Commission Act. The financial difficulties which the processors now face for a variety of reasons mean that such an examination would not be worth while. The average retail price of frozen chips and other convenience potato products—as measured by the National Food Survey—fell by 17 per cent. between the second and third quarters of 1977.