Fruit and Vegetable Prices

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 5th February 1951.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Popplewell.]

11.3 p.m.

Photo of Miss Elaine Burton Miss Elaine Burton , Coventry South

I want to raise the question of high prices of fruit and vegetables at the weekend. This is not a new practice. It is one that I have observed over a good many years. It is noticed particularly by those of us who do our own shopping and go to the small shops to collect our vegetables, and particularly if we go on a Friday or a Saturday. We all realise that there is a much greater demand on a Friday or a Saturday for fruit and vegetables, and therefore, quite reasonably there is a much greater profit to the shopkeepers on those days. Today, when we hear so much about the cost of living—and everybody knows full well that it is rising—it is important that we should get the best value for our money. I think it will be agreed that anything which unnecessarily adds to the cost of living should be stopped.

One point I should like to make is this. I believe that some people in this country are apt to forget at times that the cost of living has gone up elsewhere in the world as well as in Britain. It may be cold comfort to say that the £ is worth less in other countries as well as in our own, but it is something which should be pointed out. If we take June, 1950, we find that the cost of living has reduced the purchasing power of the £ to about 16s. compared with June, 1945. But the fall of the purchasing power of money has been greater in other countries. In fairness, that fact should be stated. In the United States of America, taking the same period, June, 1950, the £ was worth 15s., which was Is. less than it was worth in our own country; in Australia, it was 14s, 8d.; in Canada, 14s. 1d.; in Italy, 9s. 11 d.; and in France, 3s, 9d.

I know full well, particularly as I do my own shopping, that the fact that 20s. was worth 3s. 9d. in France does not make our £ go farther, but it makes me proud of the efforts of the Government in this country, which by using food subsidies has prevented the cost of living from rising further. If we take the 12 months from June, 1949, to June, 1950,. we find that the cost of living in Britain went up by 2 per cent., exactly the same as it did in America; but in Canada it went up 4 per cent.; in New Zealand and Denmark 5 per cent; in South Africa, 6 per cent.; in France, 8 per cent; and in Australia 9 per cent.

Members will recall that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in reply to a Question in this House on 23rd January, gave the purchasing power of our £ sterling, compared with 1945, as 15s. 10d. That figure was valid in August, 1950. I have stressed these points because I feel that it is time, in this House and outside, that tribute was paid to the policy of this Government, which, by means of food subsidies has kept the cost of living lower than any other country in Europe, except the Scandinavian countries, which have a Labour Government, too. In Australia and New Zealand, the bigger part of the increase in the 12 months mentioned took place after the return to power of Tory Governments which were pledged to bring prices down.

When I knew that I had been lucky in the ballot for tonight, I did not feel it was any use airing my views if they were not substantiated, so I asked the housewives in Coventry if, during January, they would have a look at the shops where they normally deal and would compare over the four weekends in January the prices of fruit and vegetables from Monday to Thursday and on Fridays and Saturdays. They did that and sent me the answers to these questionnaires. I want to be quite fair. The House will appreciate that every shop in Coventry was not covered; it was the shops to which the housewives normally went, and the figures we have got are an average return.

The prices I give are the price increases per lb. which obtained in a good many of the shops in Coventry over the four weekends of January. Cabbage went up 2d. to 1d.; cauliflower, 2d. to 4d.; Brussels sprouts, 4d. to 6d.; carrots, ld.; onions, l½d.; parsnips, 2d.; celery, 2d. to 4d. more per head; tomatoes, 1d. to 4d.; apples, 2d. to 4d.; mushrooms, 3d. per quarter lb.; lemons, ld. each; oranges, ½d. to ½d.; pears, 2d. to 4d.; grapes, 3d.; lettuce, 4d.;and rabbits went up by as much as ls. 3d. per lb. extra. That is what the housewives found in Coventry. Those were the increases in the prices of fruit and vegetables at the weekends over the ordinary prices during the other days of the week.

Major Hicks-Beach:

Can the hon. Lady give us comparable figures for another year? We all know December and January are extremely hard weather months, which-may account for the rise.

Photo of Miss Elaine Burton Miss Elaine Burton , Coventry South

No, I have not got them for another year, but I am sure that if the shops feel they are being done an injustice, they will come back with the information. I do my own shopping, and I always avoid Fridays, because prices are up then whatever the month.

The housewives, of their own volition, put comments on the bottom of the questionnaires. Two of them were particularly interesting. The first was that they found no uniform prices for many commodities in the shops. They varied from place to place. The second point they made, and the more interesting, was that even though these prices varied a lot at the weekend, they varied a great deal more at weekends when new potatoes, peas and summer fruits and vegetables were in the shops.

Obviously it would not have been fair just to have taken Coventry alone, which may be good or bad in that respect, and so we went further afield, and we noticed this same problem in four other cities—London, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol. I will not weary the House with the mass of figures I have with me. Any hon. Member may see them afterwards, and I have broken them down quite fairly. These were the goods noticed in these four cities over a period of a fortnight, the last two weeks in January—the period was four weeks in Coventry and two in these cities—oranges, dessert apples, cooking apples, pears, cabbage lettuce, tomatoes, dry bulb onions, carrots, parsnips, savoys, other hearted cabbage, cauliflowers, and Brussels sprouts.

In London prices were up for oranges, cauliflowers and, in some shops, pears. Oranges were up by ½d. each, cauliflowers by 1d. each or 2d. a lb., pears by 2d. a lb. In Manchester, cooking apples were up 2d. a lb., cabbage lettuce by a 1d. each, tomatoes 8d. a lb.—from Is. 1d. to 1s. 9d.—and oranges by ½d. a lb. In Birmingham, oranges went up by ½d, each, cauliflowers by 1d. a lb., and brussels sprouts by ld. a lb. In Bristol, dessert apples went up by ld. to 3½d. a lb., cabbage lettuce by 2d. each. tomatoes by 1d. a lb., savoys by a ½d. a lb., oranges by ¼d. each, and brussels sprouts by 1d. a lb.

It would give a wrong and inaccurate picture if I did not state that in some places prices went down for certain commodities. In some of the London shops pears went down by 1d., tomatoes by 2d. In Manchester cauliflowers fell by 4d., brussels sprouts by ½d., dessert apples by 2d., and dry bulb onions by 1d. In. Birmingham, cabbage lettuce went down by 1d., savoys by ½d., tomatoes by 2d., and cauliflowers by 2d. Birmingham was the only place where oranges fell at all at the weekend, and they fell by 1d. a lb. In Bristol, pears were down by 1½d., tomatoes by 2½d., savoys by 1d., and cauliflowers by ½d. The housewives who gave me this information told me that in many places where prices went down they did so late on the Saturday so that the shop owners would not have perishable goods on their hands. I do not say that is the reason, but it is a reason we all know.

I get back to my original question: Why should prices of fruit and vegetables go up at the weekends? I found only one reason, or one excuse, put forward by the people in the trade. It was the fear of wastage at the weekends. They said if they were left with goods on their hands on Saturday, they had to keep them over Sunday and if they went bad by the Monday, they were out of pocket. I do not think that is a very good argument.

In the first place, it can be overcome by the reduction of prices late on Saturday. If there is a much greater demand on Friday and Saturday, there are greater profits on Friday and Saturday, and that should cover the wastage they speak about. It would only be fair to tell the House that one small trader—and she was the only one to do so, showing it not to be prevalent—put forward the point that there was a condition of sale. She had to take some things she did not want from her supplier in order to get goods she did want, and therefore, she had to put up the prices to cover the goods she did not want.

Although I have raised this matter in the House, it is a matter for the public. It is not something we can legislate upon and I hope it is something we should not wish to legislate upon. It is a matter for public opinion. I know that every hon. Member thinks that his constituency is quite the best, but I should like to mention Coventry. In Coventry the housewives have been looking into this matter. I do not know whether or not we can take the following as a recognition of the authority of Parliament, but in one area of Coventry which was very bad for this increase in prices at the weekend, during the months we sent out this questionnaire, the housewives tell me that there has been no increase at all. Maybe, as the hon. Member opposite suggested, this is because it was the month of January and because of the cold weather: but however that may be, while the questionnaire was being sent out, nothing was noticed.

I want the housewives to look into this matter. If more women are asked to return to industry, that is likely to push more shopping on to the weekend. I think it will be agreed on all sides that it is an intolerable thing that, if people have to shop at the weekend, they should have to pay more than if they shop at the beginning of the week. Those of us who do our own shopping—men as well as women—if we see goods marked higher on Friday and Saturday, should ask the shopkeeper why, or write to the local paper about it. While I have no objection to people making profits out of increased demand. I think it is intolerable that they should fleece the public by putting on additional prices on Friday and Saturday.

There are two possible solutions. One is that people should shop earlier in the week. I do not think that is feasible. Most wages are paid on Friday and most people prefer to shop on Friday or Saturday for the weekend. The other is that public opinion must draw attention to this and try to prevent shopkeepers from doing it. In conclusion, I should like to thank the Ministry of Food and the. Parliamentary Secretary for the co-operation they have given in this matter. I hope they will be able to give us a lead about this ramp at the weekends.

11.18 p.m.

Photo of Mr Frederick Willey Mr Frederick Willey , Sunderland North

As my hon. Friend has indicated in raising this rather intriguing subject, I asked officers of my Department to make inquiries over two recent weekends. These inquiries were made in London, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol and were concentrated on the 12 varieties of fruit and vegetables to which my hon. Friend referred. Before dealing with these inquiries, I should like to make two general observations. In spite of increased costs, prices of most fruit and vegetables are, and have been for some time, at or below the previous controlled maximum prices. The second general point is that the prices of fruit and vegetables are especially influenced by variations of supply and by consumer's choice.

To return to the question of weekend prices, when we talk about weekend prices we have to recognise that the shopping of fruit and vegetables is concentrated at the weekend. In fact, of all retail sales of fruit and vegetables, about 55 per cents. occur on Fridays and Saturdays. This in itself, however, is not the explanation of the variations with which we are concerned. In fact, these variations do not follow any clear price pattern at all. If we analyse the results of our inquiries we find that, for the first weekend, in 11 cases an average price increase had occurred, but in seven cases the average retail price had fallen.

If we turn to the second weekend, the position then was that in 10 cases the average retail price had increased; and in nine cases the average retail price had decreased. For the rest, the average retail price had not altered. Indeed, in the case of carrots, parsnips and cabbages—and these, in this respect, differ from Coventry—in the four areas to which we directed our inquiries there was no price variation as far as the average retail price was concerned. I have been dealing, so far, with the average retail price, but these averages in themselves are confusing. If we take as an illustration savoy cabbages, in the first weekend, the average retail price rose in Bristol. In the second weekend it fell in Bristol. The same sort of inexplicable variation between the trend of average prices can be illustrated in different centres. As regards tomatoes, the average price increased in Bristol for the first weekend and decreased for the second weekend, although for the second weekend in other commodities there were price increases.

It might be assumed that perhaps the retail prices to some degree reflect the wholesale prices, but in general that is not so. The wholesale prices, as far as I have been able to examine them, through these limited inquiries, do not show price fluctuations to this degree. The retailers' general practice is to buy twice weekly, and it might be thought, again, that the fact that they buy more heavily towards the end of the week might affect the wholesale prices. But that is not so either. So neither in the particular examples nor in general does the change of retail prices reflect the wholesale prices.

Another qualification which has to be made is that so far I have been dealing with average prices, but these average prices themselves are averages of a wide range of prices. I have mentioned the price of tomatoes in Bristol. For the first weekend, the average price was based upon prices varying over a range from 1s. to 2s. per lb., and for the second weekend the average was of prices ranging between 10d. and 1s. 8d. per 1b. To take another example, dessert apples at Manchester for the first weekend had prices which differed as much as from 7d. to 1s. 9d.; and in the second weekend from 6d. to 1s. 9d. When I looked at the figures for Manchester, I found that on the Tuesday of the first week we had looked into, the retail price of tomatoes was actually less than the wholesale price then obtaining. Perhaps that no more than illustrates the fact that the retailer carries with him a surplus stock and that at the beginning of the following week he has to dispose of that stock. Not only has he to dispose of it, however, but it is not in as fresh condition as it would have been on the previous Friday or Saturday.

We have to be careful not to be too alarmed about this price variation. After all, if we want competitive retailing we have to accept this variation, and it is that very variation which gives the consumer the opportunity of exercising effectively consumer choice. Another factor which reflects itself in price is quality. It might be cheaper to buy better quality at higher prices than a lower quantity at lower prices. All these factors make generalisation difficult, but even a limited inquiry like this into the distribution of fruit and vegetables confirms all that the Labour Party said at the last Election about the subject. It confirms what the retailers themselves say. The Retail Fruit Trade Federation, in their charter, call attention to the need for avoiding, through the distributive trade, disparity of price.

If there are difficulties in giving a rational explanation of the factors we are considering, at any rate it amply justifies the very careful consideration which is being given to this general problem by the Government at the present time. The more that it is considered, as is shown by what we are discussing tonight, the more clear it is that the reduction of the costs of distribution of fruit and vegetables is a complex question, to which there is no early or simple solution. The mere fact that it is complex, does not mean that it can be avoided. It has to be carefully considered and a solution sought.

I will touch upon one of the other matters mentioned, and that is the question of women in industry. I remember that during the war arrangements were made to enable women in industry to shop during the week. That is not such an urgent matter now as it was then, because, of course, many workers have got a five-day week. Nevertheless it is something to pay regard to in connection with this undesirable feature in the distribution of fruit and vegetables. We want free and fair competition, but we do not want a trend of prices which will prejudice the trade in the eyes of the public. I hope that the retailers themselves will pay attention to the researches of my hon. Friend, and also to the figures which I have been able to give to the House tonight, and that they will do their best to endeavour to see that, although they are faced with the difficulties of carrying too great a stock to meet public demand over the weekend, they do not take undue advantage of the fact that most people buy more heavily at the weekend. In fact, most people not only prefer but are obliged to buy more heavily at that time.

As I have said, some of these prices are quite inexplicable, and it is really up to the retailers not to compel the consumer to be prejudiced in exercising consumer choice by having to go long distances in an effort to discover variety and fair prices. It does seem to me that it would be better if there were more market intelligence, and if, while allowing wider consumer choice, there were not these wide irrational price fluctuations.

Adjourned accordingly at Half-past Eleven o'Clock.