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Seamen's Strike (Food Supplies)

Volume 728: debated on Wednesday 18 May 1966

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(by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he will make a statement about food supplies, and the effect of the new restrictions on the export of meat.

In view of home production and commercial stocks, there is no immediate problem about supplies of food. Therefore, there is no need at all for any panic buying, nor for any unjustified increases in price. I am, of course, keeping a close watch from day to day for any supply problems that may develop if the strike is prolonged.

I am in the course of seeing the leaders of various sectors of the food industry, so as to ensure that I am kept in constant touch with the supply situation. I have told them that the Government do not intend to allow this situation to be exploited for excessive personal profit.

I am glad to say that the representatives of the trades I have seen have readily associated themselves with this view, as have leaders of other trades. For instance, the National Federation of Meat Traders Associations has asked its members to absorb what increased costs they possibly can, and has said that it can see no reason at present for substantial increases in meat wholesale prices.

I have also today seen the representatives of the marketing boards of the overseas fruit growers, who have also promised their co-operation. For example, the South African citrus organisation—supplying almost all our citrus at this time of year—has undertaken to peg its prices at pre-strike levels for at least a month. The wholesale and retail fruiterers organisations will do their best to ensure that this decision is reflected in retail prices.

Supplies of meat are at present fully adequate but, if the strike continues, imports will be affected, and the Government must offset as far as possible any loss or interruption of supplies. My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade is accordingly revoking, with effect from 21st May, existing licences for the export of non-pedigree cattle, sheep and pigs, and prohibiting from the same date the export of carcase meat and offal of these animals, except under licence.

These arrangements will remain in force solely to deal with the situation caused by the strike. I am glad to say that the President of the National Farmers' Union accepts that this step is necessary for the duration of the strike.

Is the Minister aware that we on this side of the House endorse everything that he has said about preventing unreasonable rises in price? We ourselves would condemn these just as much. But how does he propose, in a market where prices are affected by supply and demand, to keep prices down? I am sure that the assurances he has received and the assurances that he has given the House will be helpful. Has he considered the feasibility in case of need of bringing in certain key commodities by air to keep prices reasonable?

Is he aware that his assurance that the restriction on the export of meat will be removed as soon as possible will be of comfort to those concerned, who obviously would not wish permanently to lose the trade which has been built up?

I can give a categorical assurance that this restriction is for the duration of the strike. It has been accepted to be right by the producers themselves. Foodstuff supplies are adequate at present, but if the situation changes the Government, obviously, will take what action is required. I cannot say what the new situation would be.

Would the Minister be good enough to pay an early visit to the main sheds in the Canary Wharf of the West India Transport Dock, where he will find tens of thousands of cases of tomatoes and apples and large quantities of potatoes and onions which have been held in stockpile for some time—in some cases for some weeks—manifestly in anticipation of the strike and of rising prices? Will he take effective action to deal with people who, clearly, have been planning for some time to cash in on shortages arising from the strike?

This is the first that I have heard of this. In all fairness to my hon. Friend, he mentioned only a few minutes ago, as we were coming into the Chamber, that he would raise this matter. I am rather surprised to hear it, in view of the perishable nature of the commodities, but I assure my hon. Friend that I shall have it investigated.

Can the right hon. Gentleman the Minister say whether this prohibition of export of meat applies to Northern Ireland, too, and, if so, what is he doing to preserve the market from the Southern Irish which the Northern Ireland producers have recently developed for the export of meat to Europe?

Exports from Northern Ireland to the Irish Republic will not be affected.

While congratulating my right hon. Friend on his success so far in consultations with the trade, I should like to ask whether he would not agree that Ministers of the Crown have no power to compel traders to hold their prices. Having regard to this, would he agree to recommend to his right hon. Friends in the Cabinet to introduce for the duration of the emergency price controls as the only way of guaranteeing that the housewife will not be held to ransom?

My hon. Friend has accepted that by voluntary co-operation we shall have agreements with the trades to keep down prices. I think that this is the right way to go about it. After all, we are not as yet in a state of emergency. I shall watch developments closely and shall not hesitate to act if necessary, but I would rather achieve success by voluntary agreements.

I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's responsibility for maintaining meat supplies, but is he aware that many exporting firms and farmers' co-operatives have built up a valuable export trade with the Continent? How will they be affected where they have contracted to supply overseas countries? Will compensation be available if they suffer loss as a result of this ban?

I understand that an export trade has been built up—and I appreciate this—but in view of the threat to the home consumer I believe that it was right to take the decision that I did.

My right hon. Friend referred to the fact that he has been in touch with the meat trade, which is the retail side of the trade. Has he been in touch with the big wholesalers'? Has he seen that in today's Daily Mail that there is criticism of the action of Messrs. Borthwick in increasing their prices of meat even before the strike took place?

I have been in touch and I am meeting the meat wholesalers. Their representatives will be coming to the Ministry and I shall have discussions with them. Let us not panic about this. I saw in this afternoon's Press that the situation at Smithfield is very stable. Let us not panic, but when there are individuals who are taking advantage of the situation we must expose them.

While my right hon. Friend is announcing his agreements with the representatives of the various distributive trades, may I ask whether he is aware that yesterday afternoon housewives in some parts of London had to pay 5s. per lb. for potatoes and enormous prices per lb. for tomatoes? Is it not evident that the agreements which my right hon. Friend has reached are not being effective lower down the line, where it matters? Will he not, therefore, give the House an assurance that he will take effective measures to make these agreements effective so that prices do not rise unnecessarily?

There is always a possibility that a retailer may take advantage, but I have an assurance from the trade that it will try, by co-operation, to achieve a successful stablisation. Today, I addressed the potato merchants on this very theme and they accepted the Government policy. If there is exploitation, which would be very wrong, we must expose it. At the same time, we must not panic, because there is still a great measure of stability.

Will the Minister bear in mind that if he is considering a price freeze or price control, experience during the war and shortly afterwards showed that when prices were frozen the goods disappeared from the shops, and that in considering this matter rationing must be considered at the same time?

As I have said, I will not hesitate to recommend certain action if necessary. But I would want to achieve success by voluntary co-operation in the present circumstances. I believe that this is the most sensible, realistic and right approach.