Food Prices

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10th December 1973.

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Photo of Mr Emlyn Hooson Mr Emlyn Hooson , Montgomeryshire 12:00 am, 10th December 1973

Technically, that is right, but it had the same effect. That is the point I make. We must be realistic about it. It had a substantial effect upon our traditional suppliers over a period of time. All I am saying now is that, historically, the die is cast. We cannot go back to our traditional suppliers. It is most important, therefore, that we bring all possible power to bear to change the common agricultural policy. There can be no doubt about that. There are hon. Members on both sides, whether in favour of the Common Market or not, who do not support the common agricultural policy.

We must make a realistic assessment of whether world food prices are up temporarily or permanently. It seems to me that, over the past two or three years, certain unusual factors accounted for the rise in grain prices, in particular. I do not think that the same applies to beef, lamb or pork prices, although pork is much more linked with the price of grain than are the other meats.

The additional acreage brought into production in the United States and the improvement in the Russian harvest give cause for hopes that grain prices might drop. I estimate that it will not happen before 1975, however. I do not know what the effect of the fuel crisis will be. It could mean that we shall not enjoy the benefit of the lower grain prices. Let us assume, however, that, as in the normal course of events, grain prices were to fall. We would be in a ridiculous position if we were still tied to the common agricultural policy with its highly sustained grain prices.

I represent an agricultural livestock area. I know how many small livestock farmers and dairy fanners are struggling today. If there is one thing they hate it is Ministers quoting across-the-board figures for farmers' incomes—lumping the corn barons together with the livestock farmers in the western parts of the country. It must be in the overwhelming interests of the country to make serious modifications to the CAP and I further criticise the Government for pussyfooting in their attitude towards it. I am sure that all the pro-Marketeers will agree with my criticism that we have not been throwing our weight about in the Common Market as we should have done. The Common Market countries are certainly benefiting from having access to our markets and we therefore have considerable bargaining power.

I take the view that in the long term the balance of power is shifting, as I have forecast in almost every agriculture debate in which I have spoken, steadily in the direction of the primary producers. I think that certainly applies to agriculture and energy and probably to many other spheres also. What does that foretell for Britain, the EEC and the whole of the Western world? Except for those who are much more self-sustaining than we are, it represents a most serious situation which goes above party politics.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. David Stoddart) on his luck in winning the ballot and on the way in which he presented his motion. I criticise him in one respect, however—over the completely unnecessary last few lines of the motion relating to the Labour Party and the TUC which prevent my party voting for it. He said nothing about that aspect of the motion but it nevertheless excludes those who feel very much as he did from voting with him.

The Government are too sanguine about food prices. At the Liberal Party Assembly in September I said that I thought there would be a serious food shortage next spring with the possibility even of rationing for some goods. I was criticised then for taking such a pessimistic view. I believe now that the fuel crisis will add to those difficulties. Nearly every dairy fanner I have spoken to in my area believes there will be a shortage of milk in this country within a year or two. It will come much sooner than most people expect.

There is a great shortage of agricultural labour. I know of a man who is today selling his dairy herd at very short notice because he is unable to run his farm. In my area the farmers are not feeding cattle as they normally would because of the high price of feeding stuffs. The cattle are being kept in store condition and not in prime condition as would otherwise be the case. They will not come on to the market in the spring. Many more breeding sows and cows have been sent for slaughter in the last three or four months than at any other time in recent years. This is because of the uncertainty which faces particularly the smaller farmer over interest rates. They do not know what the future holds so they cut their losses and keep the minimum of stock. The Government should consider what effect this will have for a country such as Britain which depends on imports for 50 per cent. of its food. The energy crisis means that we shall pay still higher prices for the food we import.

I forecast now that food prices will rise in the next five or six months much more than in the last two or three years. The Government were warned about this development months ago yet they remain completely sanguine in the face of it. They have completely underestimated the seriousness of the situation. I have never supported the CAP and if that policy is to be followed it will be better to pay subsidies to those who cannot afford to buy the food. We cannot have a sustained policy of subsidy for both producer and consumer and the best solution is to subsidise the consumer. That means ensuring that pensions, family allowances and so on must be geared to the new price rises.

I do not see why, as a temporary measure and in view of the unprecedented rises which face us, we should not introduce temporary subsidies of feeding stuffs to enable the supply of milk to be maintained. There should be subsidies, too, for various other commodities, and if the Government ignore the need for these measures they are heading for considerable trouble. The situation will get worse for another reason. I agree with the right hon. Member for Battersea, North who said that one element in rising world food prices for which we are accountable is the money with which we buy the food—and that means the value of the pound. We have been compelled to export 20 per cent. more goods in order to buy the same amount of agricultural produce as a year ago. That is a serious situation which, with an energy crisis, will get much worse.

It gives me no pleasure to say it but I believe the country to be facing one of the most difficult periods in its history. In the debate today we have underplayed the problem that will face us over food. We are facing a situation of food shortage and we should be taking drastic steps now to deal with it. There is no sign of the Government being even remotely aware of the nature of that problem.