The average price collected for the Retail Price Index on 9th December 1975, the latest date for which this information is available, was 7·5p a lb. for whites and 8p a lb. for reds. Average retail prices in February 1975 were 3·1p for whites and 3·6p for reds; and in February 1974 2·4p for whites and 2·9p for reds.
Since the Government have allowed the price of potatoes to increase by at least three times in the past two years—and the price has gone up since the latest figures were produced—may I ask whether the Government are aware that potatoes are a basic item of diet for most families? Or have the Government taken medical advice and learnt that potatoes have a heavy carbohydrate content and cause a great deal of obesity and many heart attacks, and decided that they are therefore bad for the people?
The hon. Gentleman will know that it has not been through any action of the Government that the price increase in potatoes has been so substantial. He will realise that the Government are concerned about the high price of potatoes, particularly because of its effect upon older people and the less well-off. There are, however, nutritious alternatives available.
My right hon. Friend will know that the principal cause of the present high price of potatoes was the weather of last summer, over which not even my right hon. Friend has power.
Does the Minister agree that the shortage is not only due to the weather but is also affected by the reduced acreage grown? If prices are to come down next season does the Minister accept that he must persuade the Minister of Agriculture to increase support prices so as to provide an incentive for farmers to grow potatoes?
The hon. Member, with his knowledge of agriculture, will appreciate that the principal reason for the decline in the potato harvest was the decline in the yield and not in the acreage. There has been a slight decline here. Target acreages have not been achieved under successive Governments. The relevance of the guarantee is not immediately apparent, in that it has not been effective since 1971. If the hon. Gentleman has any further points, he may wish to put them to the Minister of Agriculture.
Does my hon. Friend appreciate that we on the Labour Benches are fully aware that he cannot forecast the weather nine months ahead? Is he further aware that potatoes are the staple diet of the lower income groups and of schoolchildren? Does he realise that the fish and chip fryers in Yorkshire and Lancashire are up in arms about the price of potatoes? When does he intend to do something to prevent the excessive hoarding of potatoes by farmers and to stop the wholesaler and retailer from taking advantage of a situation in which they have cornered the market?
My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the seriousness of this matter. It would, however, be wrong to intervene directly to control the price of potatoes. To do so would inevitably lead to the consequences that have been felt in Belgium, where potatoes have disappeared from the market. There is no evidence that farmers or distributors—or, for that matter, consumers—are hoarding in appreciable quantities. Normal marketing requires some potatoes to be kept back, for consumption later in the year. If there were any such hoarding we would deplore it. The Potato Marketing Board has advised farmers to continue their orderly marketing.
While I accept that there is nothing that the Secretary of State can do about the weather, may I ask the Under-Secretary to tell the House whether any Minister from his Department representing the consumer interest participated in the talks initiated by the Potato Marketing Board as early as last July, when it was clear that there would be a serious shortage? Can the Minister say that steps were taken then to make urgent representations to the European Commission, asking for the suspension of tariffs while potatoes were still available? Can he further say whether the Potato Marketing Board has any direct access to his Department? If the hon. Gentleman's reply to my questions is in the negative, I ask, "Why".
The hon. Lady will know that as early as last summer—the period to which she referred—my right hon. Friend asked the Price Commission to keep a close watch upon distributors' margins, which is the matter for which she has particular responsibility. The hon. Lady will also know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food approached the European Community and that we have had the suspension of the common external tariff on imports of main crop potatoes from countries outside the EEC. We have also banned the export of ware potatoes. We have lifted the restriction on imports of potatoes. The Potato Marketing Board has allowed the riddle size to be adjusted to allow all potatoes worth selling to be marketed.
As for the hon. Lady's point about consumer representation, she may know that the Consumer Committee of the Potato Marketing Board has announced a study of the marketing operations of the Board to see the extent to which consumers' interests are affected by the manner and method of the Board's working.
Although no evidence has been found of excessive margins in distribution, I have asked the Price Commission for monthly reports.
I apologise, Mr. Speaker, for still being on the subject of potatoes.
Following the question just asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim), may I ask what action the Minister is taking to ensure that the suspension of the import quota on potatoes lasts for more than three months? As the Price Code controls only the overall level of wholesalers' margins, is the Minister totally satisfied that, specifically in the potato business, wholesalers' margins are not excessive? There is some public fear that they are.
The question of the duration of the ban on imports is under continual review by my right hon. Friend, as is the question of margins. I would also refer to the indication that I have given that the Price Commission will be making monthly reports. We have no reason to believe that unjustifiable margins are being attained. Cash margins for distributors generally are somewhat higher than last year, but percentage margins are appreciably lower.
Will my hon. Friend explain why my right hon. Friend can say, in an answer, that the price of potatoes is a matter of supply and demand and that price control is out of the question and yet, last week, she was able to explain to the House that on 50 items, irrespective of supply and demand, she will introduce an element of control? Why cannot she do this with potatoes?
In announcing the selective price restraint scheme last week my right hon. Friend made it clear that because of seasonality of production and differences of supply and demand, fresh food would not be kept within the ambit of the scheme. It would be impossible to interevene and control prices without a system of rationing, which would be quite impossible to set up in the short time available, or without incurring the risk of driving the potato right off the market—by doing as the Belgians have done and creating a black market.
On the question of exports, is the Minister aware that at the time of my family holiday in Teneriffe last August it was a matter of amused comment that the Canary Islands, of all places, were importing potatoes from the United Kingdom, although the ban on exports did not take place until two months later? Why did not the Department act sooner to protect the consumer?
My right hon. Friend acted as soon as was appropriate to ensure that the ban would have effect in helping consumers in this country to have potatoes.
Will my hon. Friend be a little more specific than his mere statement that he has no evidence of profiteering? Is he aware that throughout the country there is a great deal of suspicion on this subject, and that a ministerial statement simply to the effect that there is no evidence will not satisfy anyone? Will he be a little more specific about the investigations that his Department has made into this matter and which have provided such evidence?
It is understandable that there should be suspicion when the rise in the price of potatoes is as high as it has been. But no evidence, direct or indirect, has been submitted to my Department by any individual or association which suggests that there has been profiteering. However, if my hon. Friend has such evidence I am certainly willing to examine it, as I would examine evidence provided by anybody on this subject, because it deeply concerns us. The Price Commission has been given the specific remit of performing the task of monitoring prices—distributors' prices in particular—and I believe that it is carrying out that task with its usual thoroughness.
In the Minister's view do the marketing boards take full account of consumers' interests? Will he explain to me, as a layman, why the sugar beet acreage should be increased when there is a glut of sugar and the potato acreage for next year is to be reduced when there appears to be a shortage and the prospect of a further shortages?
Decisions on target acreages are for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but I understand that no final views have been taken. As for the protection of consumers' interests. I drew the attention of hon. Members this afternoon to the setting up, by the Consumer Committee of the Potato Marketing Board, of an inquiry in investigate these questions.
Is my hon. Friend satisfied that current price increases by large-scale potato processors reflect the true price that was paid for those potatoes? Do not large-scale users buy huge acreages many months before the potatoes are lifted? Do the recent price increases in potato crisps, for example, accurately reflect the price at which the potatoes were originally bought? Should not the Department be investigating and remedying this matter?
Potato manufacturers are subject to the same controls as other manufacturers in respect of their allowable costs and the control of their profit margins. I have no evidence of unjustifiable increases permitted by the Price Commission. If my hon. Friend has a specific case in mind, I shall ensure that the Price Commission has the facts.
I apologise to my hon. Friend for bringing him back to the subject of potatoes. Should he not tell the House that, although, according to an earlier answer, his Department has not received any evidence about hoarding, it is very widespread in the public mind that hoarding may be going on? Would he not care to say publicly that if, in the present potato famine, growers are hoarding in clamps, it will lead to great public ill will and probably also to an outbreak of petty crime?
Lest there should be any misunderstanding, I should point out that it is true that potato producers do not release all potato stocks on to the market at one time. They must spread them out over the period until the next domestic potato season begins, which is in May. This does not mean that there is evidence of hoarding; it simply means that proper judgment is being exercised to ensure that supplies are spread out to meet the needs of the consumer. If my hon. Friend has evidence of the kind that lie thinks is worrying the public, my right hon. Friend and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will examine it carefully. I repeat that the consumption of potatoes in this country is up substantially on last year's consumption, which does not suggest that potatoes are being held hack.