Is it not a scandal that food prices rose by 15 per cent. last year and will rise further on our entry to the Common Market, yet the Agricultural Wages Board has had the audacity to say that £16 a week is enough for the average farm worker to live on? Is it not time to set up a Wilberforce court of inquiry into the reason why food prices are reaching astronomical heights while agricultural wages remain shockingly low?
What the House has asked me for at the moment is a revised estimate of the gap which we shall have to bridge to join our prices to the Community's prices, and that will be altered by the increase in prices which the Community may give next month or some time soon. That is what my review will deal with.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) asked a supplementary question about farm workers, and my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris) originally put down an Oral Question on this subject, which, for technical reasons is now to have a Written Answer, is it possible to answer that Question orally?
On a point of order. Is it not bogus for a right hon. Member of the experience of the right hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) to try to drag in a Question which has been demoted to a Written Question by the rule of the House?
Agricultural prices—excluding prices for fruit and vegetables, for which figures are not yet available—rose by 6·4 per cent. between the harvest years 1969–70 and 1970–71. Over a broadly similar period, the National Food Survey figures for household expenditure on food rose by 7·3 per cent.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for those figures. Do they not show that the rise in retail prices of food to the housewife cannot be blamed on the farmers and that to a large extent, bearing in mind the figures given in the Grocer last week, distributors, manufacturers and processers of food are getting away with murder? What steps does he intend to take to ensure that his competitive policy comes home to this industry and makes it charge a proper price for its products?
I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. One of the important factors in any increase in prices has been the effect of the cost of imported foods. World prices have risen enormously; another main factor has been the general level of wages. Agricultural output, in terms of increased price, is roughly in line with the increased cost to the consumer.
Will my right hon. Friend say why the information in regard to the price of fruit and vegetables is not yet available? Is he aware that fruit and vegetables play a very important part in the diet of the average family? Will he confirm that the British horticulturist is in no way responsible for the increase in prices?
I could not definitely confirm the last part of my hon. Friend's remarks. They are not necessarily true, because there has been some increase in fruit and vegetable prices as well. The figures that I have given are based on the agricultural price index which is compiled by my Department and which runs from June to May each year. The figures for vegetables and fruit are not yet available.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reply. Does he recall that 12 months ago he was in the habit of saying that much of the increase in food prices was consequential upon increasing world prices? Does not he agree that the impact of this Government's policies on reducing the rate of inflation may be rather less than is sometimes pretended by the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends?
I am not absolutely certain of the hon. Gentleman's point, but, as the figures show, the largest increase occurred in the sub-group covering those commodities imported mainly for direct consumption. But there has also been a considerable increase in those commodities at home.
Does not my right hon. Friend agree that the marked increase in the prices of such imported commodities as butter has made it very difficult for him to control retail prices in the shops?
Yes. I can confirm that the price of dairy products has been a major problem in trying to keep down prices. I am glad to say that we now appear to be over the hump of increases in dairy produce. This is the best news that we have had for some while.
Why is it that when right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite are in office it is import prices which affect food prices, whereas when the last Government were in office the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends always blamed the Government?
Following is the information:
|Increase in the Index of Retail Food Prices between 15th December, 1970 and 14th December, 1971||13·0|
|(a) items the prices of which show significant seasonal variations*||19·0|
|(i) items mainly home-produced for direct consumption||15·0|
|(ii) items mainly imported for direct consumption||16·6|
|(iii) items manufactured in the United Kingdom||7·8|
|(1) manufactured primarily from home-produced raw materials||9·0|
|(2) manufactured primarily from imported raw materials||7·1|
|* Home-killed lamb, fresh and smoked fish, eggs, fresh vegetables and fresh fruit are the items the prices of which show significant seasonal variations.|
Irrespective of how many complaints or letters the Minister has received, is he aware that I have received hundreds of letters from people in Islington and throughout London, especially the elderly, who just cannot manage on their low pensions'? What is he doing about the situation?
The hon. Gentleman has probably just heard me say that we are reviewing old-age pensions every year. That is the best possible thing that could happen for old-age pensioners.
Is the Minister aware that people generally in London, like Members of Parliament, have got fed up with writing to him, because they cannot get any reply at all, let alone a satisfactory reply? Will he do something to bring down prices "at a stroke", as was promised by his right hon. Friends and himself?
If the hon. Gentleman has any evidence of having written a letter to me without getting a reply, perhaps he will let me know. I should also point out that he puts down more Questions to my Ministry than does any other Member, and that he gets more replies.
Is the Minister aware that he has told the House on frequent occasions recently that he has got food price increases under control? What kind of control is 13 per cent? Surely he will not tell us that it is due to the farm workers' wage increase, especially when we take into account the fact that productivity has risen by 6 per cent. Is it not time that the right hon. Gentleman brought prices under control and at the same time met the agricultural workers' leader, Reg Bertini, to agree a reasonable settlement for farm workers' wages?
On the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I hope that the Opposition will not try to take away from the Agricultural Wages Board a position which it held under the previous Government and with which it would be extremely dangerous for either side of the House to interfere. Regarding the level of prices, I know that the hon. Gentleman will be extremely pleased to hear that since July the increase in prices has been 3·4 per cent.
Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that if it had not been for the tremendous efforts made by British agriculture these prices might have been considerably higher? Will he also bear in mind that it has been a tremendous effort to achieve this position after the barren, impotent years that agriculture suffered under the Socialist Government?
Is the Minister really aware of the difficulties with which many of my elderly constituents are having to contend because of food prices? It may not be to the point, but may I ask whether he is aware that people are now offering those of my constituents who are suffering financial hardship £300 for vacant possession of their houses?
I am aware of the great difficulties which inflation brings to all those who live on pensions and fixed incomes. That is why I sometimes get a little fed up with right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite trying to get increased wages for everyone else in the community, which is the main cause of increased prices.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that for 12 months now he has been announcing food prices week in, week out—or at least every other week in, and every other week out? As it is now transparently clear that these increases are not caused through any wage increase to agricultural workers, will he stop this competition in which he is indulging with his right hon. Friend from the Department of Employment, who seems set on increasing unemployment at the same time as the right hon. Gentleman seems set on increasing food prices for ordinary people?
I am not set on increasing food prices. In fact, in the last six months there has been a considerable improvement. If right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite will wait a little longer they will see how great that improvement has been.
Will my right hon. Friend observe that the success of his policies in agriculture, which have led to such a large increase in home-produced food, have had the influence of stabilising food prices, which are now rising at a much less steep rate than in the preceding 12 months?
I do not know why the Minister should be pleased at this, since his whole policy as enunciated before was that he believed in high prices. Secondly, it is quite correct that we have to return to a figure for 12 months. There has been a 13 per cent. increase in food prices—
Is the Minister aware that there has been an increase in food prices of 13 per cent. over the last 12 months and that this continual approach both by himself and his supporters, to give figures for the last, six months, when food prices are always low, is no excuse?