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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 886: debated on Monday 10 February 1975

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Prices And Consumer Protection

Sugar (Conditional Sales)


asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection how many complaints of sugar purchases being restricted to those who buy a minimum of £1 worth of other goods have been received by her Department and if she will make a statement.


asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what representations she has received on the subject of supermarkets only being prepared to supply goods in short supply, subject to the purchase of a minimum amount or value of other goods.

The Minister of State, Department of Prices and Consumer Protection
(Mr. Alan Williams)

The 680 complaints about conditional sales which have been received since last July have all concerned sugar. About half quoted £1 as the minimum sum to be spent on other goods in order to obtain sugar. This practice is not illegal but I again urge that it should be applied with care to avoid unnecessary hardship.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does he feel that he is speaking strongly enough to the stores concerned about this practice, bearing in mind the fact that the new sugar agreement which the Government have negotiated makes it less likely that supplies have to be restricted in this way? Is he aware that old-age pensioners especially are suffering from this restriction levied on them by the stores?

As my hon. Friend has said, it is less likely that this sort of practice will be needed in the future. I notice that many stores seem to have stopped the practice now. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection, in advice to the trade, indicated that it was essential that it should take account of the needs of pensioners, those on low incomes and, where possible, regular customers. However, with mass supermarkets it is not always possible to identify the regular customer.

Does the Minister agree that, although restriction is clumsy and unfair, there is nothing wrong with a shop trying to ensure that regular customers receive supplies of sugar which are short?

This is the practical quandary. I am sure most hon. Members will recognise that shops wanting to be fair find themselves faced with individuals sometimes shopping around buying as much sugar as they can, and going back to the same store again and again. Perhaps it is a great pity that the practice of hoarding has been given the stamp of approval by the Conservative Party.

European Economic Community


asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what effect her Department estimates Great Britain's membership of the EEC has had on prices and on the other consumer matters for which her Department is responsible.

While it is difficult to estimate the total effect of EEC membership on prices, prices of imported industrial goods from both the EEC and other parts of the world will be less because of reductions in tariffs; food prides are also at present slightly below what they would have been had we not been members. Community work on consumer protection is at an early stage, but I very much welcome the Commission's recent Programme for Consumer Protection and Information.

Will my right hon. Friend state her view whether the flexibility shown by our European partners in these matters will enable us to meet the manifesto commitment on them?

My hon. Friend will appreciate that there are still outstanding matters being negotiated and that we are anxious to see the common agricultural policy more flexible on such matters as direct national payments for agriculture and the variable beef premium. It is encouraging that in such matters as sugar and beef the EEC shows a degree of flexibility which I do not think it showed a year ago.

Will the Secretary of State give us an up-to-date indication of the main foodstuffs which are now cheaper because we are in the EEC than they would be if we kicked ourselves out?

I ask the hon. Gentleman to await a further Question on the Order Paper which deals precisely with that point.

Retail Price Index


asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what is the current rate of price increases, based upon the last three months of the retail price index grossed up to an annual rate.


asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what she estimates the annual rate of increase in the detail price index now to be.


asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what has been the increase in the cost of living since February 1974


asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what is her latest estimate for the rise in the cost of living during the past 12 months.

The retail price index rose by 19·1 per cent. in the 12 months to December 1974 and the increase over the three months to December, expressed at an annual rate, was 25·2 per cent. Since February 1974 the actual increase was 14·9 per cent.

Are the Government trying to fool the country by pretending they can stem the tide of inflation by indiscriminate food subsidies when this additional Government spending is simply adding to the pressures of inflation?

The Government are not trying to fool anybody. From the beginning we pointed out what subsidies could do and what they could not do. Nevertheless it is true that subsidies have reduced the food index by six points, and in consequence the food index in the whole of this year has not yet reached the levels that it reached when the last Conservative administration left office.

Is not the right hon. Lady disappointed by the figures which she has quoted in view of what was promised to the electorate before the 1974 election?

The promises which we made have been carried out. They include such matters as maximum price orders, food subsidies and display requirements. All are being introduced on to the statute book. I am, however, disappointed by a rate of inflation which is as high as 20 per cent. a year. The factors involved in that, as the hon. Gentleman will know, include such matters as the level of the value of sterling, the recent very sharp increase in some food raw materials, especially sugar, and, as my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Employment and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have made clear, our considerable concern about the level of at least a minority of the income and wage settlements being made. But this is not entirely due to those who are within the social contract. Some of the highest settlements are being proposed by professional groups and others outside it.

On the basis of the figure of 25·2 per cent. being the rate of inflation over the past three months, will the right hon. Lady say what the rate of inflation would have been had there been no food subsidies?

I have said already that the rate of inflation over the RPI generally would have been between 1½ and 2 per cent. higher. The food index would have been 6·.8 per cent. higher. The 25·2 per cent. figure is misleading because it is based on a 13-week and not a 12-week period, which is the normal period.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is considerable confusion amongst housewives about what are genuine prices? Is there a problem in recruiting qualified staff in the weights and measures departments of the responsible authority?

There is a problem here, and my hon. Friend will agree, I am sure, that this is one reason why the Government want to make as widely available as possible both comparisons of prices and full display of maximum prices where these apply. We are anxious to involve the housewife in supporting trading standards officers in bringing this about.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that an important component in the retail prices index, especially for pensioners, is the price of fuel? Although my right hon. Friend's Department appears to have the food situation under control, there is considerable doubt whether the price of fuel is to be controlled properly.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the efforts being made by the Government to try to restructure tariffs so as to assist the small and less-well-off consumer. Incidentally, this is the first time that that has been undertaken by a Government in respect of the nationalised industries.

As the right hon. Lady's prognostications about the rate of inflation have been somewhat variable, volatile and subject to seasonal fluctuations, will she now say what she expects the rate of inflation to be over the coming 12 months, what the main contributing factors are likely to be and how long it will be before a packet of crisps costs £10 if claim settlements at the rate of the present miners' settlement are allowed?

If I were unwise enough to enter the hypothetical stakes suggested by the hon. Lady, I might have to put in for the leadership of a party different from my own.

Has not the rate of inflation something to do with the borrowing requirement in respect of State expenditure in this and previous years?

The right hon. Gentleman is right in saying that one of the inflationary factors is the public sector borrowing requirement. However, I have always made it clear that food subsidies are offset almost entirely by the increased taxation introduced in the April 1974 Budget.

Sugar Prices


asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection if she will take steps to ensure that the Price Commission takes into account the increased profits of the sugar industry in determining the price of sugar to the housewife.


asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection if she will ask the Price Commission to take into account the increased profits of the sugar industry when considering retail sugar prices.

This happens already. The net profit margins of the sugar refiners on their operations in the United Kingdom, though not their overseas operations, are limited by the Price Code in the same way as those of other enterprises. They are always taken into account by the Price Commission when an increase in the price of sugar is notified. Both the cane-refining companies have recently reported substantially reduced profits on their United Kingdom refining interests.

Will my hon Friend bear in mind that, although home profits have reduced because of the sugar shortage last year, the advertisement of the record profits that Mr. Cube made last year list those who benefit as including the Government, the economy, investors and the industry's employees and partners? Bearing in mind the level of these profits, would not it be a good idea if the consumers benefited also?

I understand my hen. Friend's reaction to the advertisement. Frankly, I thought that in the present context, whatever its managerial justification, it lacked a certain sensitivity. But we must be fair and make it clear that the sugar refiners have co-operated fully with the Government during this period of shortage and have been very careful not to exploit the situation.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, when the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food made his statement on his return from Brussels, he said that there would be no retail price rise as a result of his sugar agreement? Is he aware, further, that the 48 per cent. of raw sugar which is used in food manufacturing and drinks will find its way into retail prices, and can he indicate what will be the rise in the food index as a result of the sugar agreement?

The ultimate price of sugar will depend on the mix of sources of supply and the balance of supply between the various sources. Until we have a clearer picture of the proportions in which the sugar will come from the different sources, it is impossible to predict whether the price will be stable or variable.

Can the hon. Gentleman add a little to what he said about the price factor on sugar? The Minister of Agriculture said that there would be an equalising factor coming in from the sugar purchased through the EEC and subsidised by the EEC. What will that be in terms of a price saving to the housewife on a 2-lb bag?

It is not possible to quantify in that way. The equalisation scheme is operating at the moment because sugar is obtained from different sources at widely differing prices. To avoid vast increases in price on shop shelves, with the co-operation of the industry we introduced the equalisation scheme. The exact level at which the equalisation figure pitches depends on the ultimate proportions of supplies from the different suppliers.

Price Increases


asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection by how much food prices have increased in the United Kingdom since 1st January 1973; and what proportion of this figure can be attributed to membership of the EEC.

The food price index rose by 37·4 per cent. between January 1973 and December 1974. Latest official estimates indicate that food prices are, on balance, very slightly lower than they would have been were we not members of the Community. But the further we get from the date of entry into the Community, the harder it is to calculate what food prices would have been if we had stayed out.

Will the right hon. Lady say whether any items of food which are imported from the EEC have been subjected to the kind of almost extortionate increases to which certain imports of food from other quarters have been subject?

The most dramatic increases in prices have been in fuel and sugar, and there are no such dramatic increases which can be associated with the EEC countries. Nevertheless, broadly speaking, it is still true that butter, cheese and Iamb from New Zealand are cheaper than they are from EEC sources whereas, largely because of the monetary compensatory amounts, wheat, beef and sugar are now less expensive from EEC sources than from outside.

Although that answer is very encouraging, does the right hon. Lady agree that world prices come down easier than Common Market prices?

It is difficult to predict what will be the pattern of world prices in the next year or so. Obviously there is more volatility in world prices, upwards and downwards, because they are not subject to the kind of regime that the common agricultural policy involves.

Food Prices


asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection whether, further to the answer on 27th November 1974 [col. 190], she is able to give examples in terms of items bought by the average housewife of the specific saving involved in the costs of cereals, beef, butter and sugar as a result of British Membership of the EEC.


asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection whether she can now give examples, in terms of items bought by the average housewife, of the specific saving in the cost of cereals, beef, butter and sugar as a result of British membership of the EEC.

The Under-Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection
(Mr. Robert Maclennan)

The commodities mentioned benefit from EEC measures such as monetary compensatory amounts on imports and Community-financed subsidies. As a number of qualifications have to be made about the calculation, I will, with permission, circulate the information in the Official Report.

Is the Minister aware of the forecast made at the recent World Food Conference, by the Secretary-General of the United Nations and by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, of a continuing shortage of world food? If those forecasts are justified, does not this mean that there will be continuing advantages to us both in terms of supply and in terms of price from membership of the Community?

My right hon. Friends have made plain that changes in the pattern of production and demand in the world market make it more important for us to be self-sufficient in the production of food.

Is my hon. Friend aware that Britain's entry into the Common Market has affected most of our Commonwealth markets? Will he give his mind to the increased prices which have resulted from our leaving the Commonwealth market and joining the EEC?

We are aware of that. My hon. Friend will also be aware that New Zealand has not been able to make full provision for our cheese requirements which we negotiated with the EEC, and that some of our difficulties with sugar stem from the attractiveness of the world market to the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries.

Will not the hon. Gentleman assure his hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs) that our problem with sugar and other commodities in recent months has often been the inability of our former Commonwealth suppliers to supply us, and that we should have been in a very poor position if sugar had not been made available to us under the Lardinois plan?

Following is the information:

Possible United Kingdom consumer benefits on certain foodstuffs from monetary compensatory amounts on imports and from community financed subsidies during the week 3rd-9th February 1975.

1. Bread

  • (a) MCAs are paid on imports of wheat from the EEC and third countries (mainly USA and Canada) and are currently worth £6·93 per ton. Assuming that the UK bread grist is now about 55 per cent. imported wheat the mca subsidy is equivalent to about 0·3 per large loaf (28 ounces).
  • (b) Until recently, levies on EEC wheat exports to third countries have meant that the UK was able to import EEC wheat cheaper than if she were outside the EEC Export levies are not at this point in time being charged and so no consumer benefit is now assumed.
  • 2. Beef

  • (a) A social beef subsidy is now payable to virtually all pensioners in the form of a token, worth 20p a week, which can be redeemed for beef and veal. The precise value of this subsidy in terms of beef prices therefore depends upon the quality and quantity of beef purchased.
  • (b) MCAs are now payable on imports from the EEC and on imports under the GATT levy free quota. The amount varies considerably according to the form in which it is imported. But for imports of fresh or chilled carcase beef (and other bone-in cuts), which is a typical form of imports at present, the mca amounts to f125·02 per ton or about 5p per lb on imported beef only. It would be misleading to spread this benefit over all beef sold in the shops, including home produced.
  • 3. Butter

  • (a) The general consumer subsidy on butter is paid in part by FEOGA, and this portion is worth £25·33 per ton, equivalent to about 1p per lb.
  • (b) The mca which is paid on imports is now worth between f8885 per ton (80 per cent. fat) and 01·08 per ton (82 per cent. fat) This is equivalent to about 4p per lb.
  • 4. Sugar

  • (a) The United Kingdom is benefiting from an EEC scheme to import sugar from world markets with the aid of a FEOGA subsidy. In the first tranche of 200,000 metric tons of raw sugar the United Kingdom is expected to receive 155,500 metric tons, and the subsidy on this to average £224·9 per ton (white). This is equivalent to a saving of about 20p per 2 lb bag on just over 3 weeks' total United Kingdom supplies. Total EEC imports of a further 300,000 metric tons have been agreed in princple, but tenders have not yet been accepted by the EEC and therefore the benefits cannot be assessed.
  • (b) MCAs are payable on our imports from EEC countries. These now amount to £18·78 per ton for raw sugar and £22·14 per ton for white sugar. This subsidy is equivalent to about 2p per 2 lb bag.
  • 25.

    asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection if she will list the items of food which are cheaper outside the EEC than inside.

    I would refer the hon. Member to the reply given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade on 23rd January 1975 to my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay).—[Vol. 884, c. 484]

    Is it not true that since then grain prices have dropped and are dropping seriously? May we have the hon. Gentleman's views on that matter?

    I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his keen sense of timing in getting here to ask his Question.

    I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not think he has been deciding it. He should also take into account in his estimate monetary compensatory amounts.

    In terms of food prices has any calculation been made of whether we would be better off outside or inside the Common Market?

    I refer my hon. Friend to the earlier reply to which I referred because it gives a considerable amount of detail on the breakdown of prices. He will, however, appreciate that prices vary considerably according to quality and grading and harvest factors.

    I understand the dangers of doing what is proposed and the difficulties of timing, but is it the Government's intention, nearer the time of the referendum, to give the public any information about prices inside and outside the Common Market?

    I should have thought that the Government's intention was to give the maximum possible information so that the discussions and deliberations could be as well informed as possible.



    asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection if she will make a study of the Bill which the French Health Minister is proposing to introduce to tighten controls on cosmetics, including a declaration of ingredients, with a view to introducing similar legislation; and if she will make a statement.

    I am aware of the proposed French legislation. It is my intention to make regulations relating to the safety of cosmetic products on sale in this country, and their preparation will begin as soon as the proposed EEC directive on cosmetics, now under consideration by the Council of Ministers, is adopted.

    Will my hon. Friend say whether the French proposals come within the scope of the EEC cosmetics directive or go beyond it? Will his proposed regulations include a declaration of ingredients, as consumers here are anxious to have that information?

    The directive is not yet finalised. My understanding is that the French legislation is intended to implement the general purposes of the directive. I am looking at the possibility of requiring notification of ingredients even if we do not go as far as requiring the full ingredients to be listed on the label.

    I welcome the Minister's pronouncements on ingredients, but will he also take the opportunity of investigating the quantities in which cosmetics are sold, as that is a vexed and long-standing problem?



    asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what is the annual rate of inflation based on the Price Commission's index for the last three months.


    asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what have been the main factors responsible for the increase in the Price Corn-mission's index since October.

    The Price Commission's index for the latest available period, which is 1st September to 30th November 1974, showed an annual rate of 191 per cent. The upward swing reflects, as the Price Commission said in its report, increases throughout the energy sector, especially for oil, and rising costs of wages and salaries in all sectors. Revision of these prices is comparatively in frequent and the combined effect of these increases may have exaggerated the upward movement.

    May I remind the right hon. Lady of the remark of her right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer during the election that the rate of inflation as a result of his splendid achievements had been brought down to 8·4 per cent.? Was the Chancellor fabricating that statement, or is the right hon. Lady now saying that, in spite of the achievements by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and his colleagues, since then the situation has got totally out of control under the guidance of the Government?

    The hon. Gentleman would be unwise to follow that path too far. In the winter of 1973–74 the rate of increase in inflation according to the Price Commission's index was not the 19½ per cent. of today but 23 per cent. It fell to 16 per cent. in the spring and to 9½ per cent. in the summer, which is the period to which my right hon. Friend was referring. There is no doubt that the fall had taken place by the summer and that my right hon. Friend was basing what he said directly on the statistics available to the Price Commission.

    Does the right hon. Lady agree with the Price Commission that any hope of avoiding massive price increases has been swept away by the rising tide of higher wages? Does not this underline the ultimate futility of maintaining price control while abolishing the Pay Board? Does not the right hon. Lady agree that unless she can persuade her colleagues to control the massive explosion in wages she and her Department might just as well pack up and go home?

    The Price Commission did not say what the hon. Gentleman has attributed to it. First, the commission said that inflation was increasingly coming within our control and it asked us to draw lessons from that. Secondly, the Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, Mr. Murray, has specifically urged upon his fellow trade unionists and those who are not trade unionists the need to follow very closely the guidance given under the social contract. Thirdly, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, about three-quarters of trade unionists are settling within the social contract and not all the pressure for breaking it comes from trade unions.

    Would it not be easier for the Government to continue their persuasive efforts to contain inflation if over the Christmas period they had not sanctioned increases in top salaries.

    That is a matter primarily for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment.

    The right hon. Lady scouted around the Chancellor's statement at the General Election about the 8·4 per cent., but the Chancellor also said that he thought we could contain inflation and get it down to a level of 10 per cent. per anum by the end of this year. The right hon. Lady will not give an estimate. How can those who are trying to stick to the social contract pitch their wage claims to take account of forthcoming inflation, as they are allowed to do, unless she makes an estimate of what it will be?

    The hon. Gentleman has got himself into a tangle. First, I repeated exactly the figures that were available to the Price Commission and the Government, which are close to those quoted by my right hon. Friend after the summer when he made his statement. Secondly, the TUC's guidelines ask those who settle to have regard to the previous rate of increase and not to a prospective rate of increase. That was once again underlined by Mr. Murray in his advice to the trade unions only a few days ago. If that were done, we should be in a fairly strong position to achieve a decline in the rate of inflation.

    Does my right hon. Friend agree that many of us are getting fed up with Opposition Members who, while apparently concerned about inflation, are taking every opportunity to knock the social contract, particularly when in the week before last, those hon. Members went through the Lobby to take a decision which will force up the public borrowing requirement and thereby stimulate the inflation about which they are allegedly concerned?

    I support what my hon. Friend says. It is not notable that the Opposition condemn the pressure for settlement far outside the social con tract from the professions and others whom they obviously do not regard as being bound by the battle against inflation.

    Is the right hon. Lady aware that she seems to be in conflict not only with the Chancellor of the Exchequer but with the Prime Minister? What did she mean by saying that some wage claims were being made by people who were outside the social contract? The Prime Minister said that all useful people were within the social contract.

    With respect. I said that this did not apply only to those trade unionists who regarded themselves as bound by the social contract. It applies to professionals and others outside the original TUC settlement.

    Will my right hon. Friend consider the formulation of a specialised price index based on the cost of living of the lower income group?

    My hon. Friend will be aware that there is already an index which deals with pensioners' expenditure, and we are exploring whether there should be further indices of this kind.

    Will the right hon. Lady acknowledge that the rate of inflation during the period she has covered is over twice the figure in the previous year? Will she indicate what rate of inflation she expects next year? The Government have just published their public expenditure figures for the February subsidy and they show that the Government must have thought hard about the inflation rate. What does the Secretary of State expect it to be?

    I find the hon. Gentleman's remark most extraordinary, because last January the food index was running at 19·5 per cent., in February it was 20 per cent., and according to the Price Commission's own commentary it was running at 23 per cent. last winter. Therefore, I do not follow the hon. Gentleman's point.

    Food Mixer Demonstration Company


    asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection if she will refer to the Director of Public Prosecutions the activities of a company, whose name has been supplied to her, in demonstrating food mixers, taking customers' money and not delivering.

    I understand that the company is now in voluntary liquidation. Under the provisions of Section 334 of the Companies Act 1948, the liquidator is required to report to the Director of Public Prosecutions if it appears to him that criminal offences have occurred in relation to the company. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade also proposes to make certain inquiries under the provisions of the Companies Act.

    I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. Is he aware that over the last year a large number of people have lost a lot of money as a result of the activities of this company? Is he also aware that there is evidence to suggest that the company's representatives have continued their activities in seeking to obtain money after the company was known to be failing?

    I am aware that a great many people have lost money or are in danger of losing money as a result of the activities of this company. However, in view of the nature of the inquiries which are now taking place I believe that it would be inappropriate for me to say more.

    Prices (Voluntary Agreement)


    asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection by how much the items in the voluntary agreement taken both collectively and individually, have risen since the agreement was made.

    The collective price of the goods in the voluntary agreement increased by 4·9 per cent. between May and December 1974, the latest month for which figures are available. This compares with a rise in the retail price index of 8·6 per cent. With permission, I will provide detailed information on individual commodities in the Official Report.

    Will the Minister say how widespread is the departmental monitoring of these figures and why his answer conflicts so sharply with the evidence in the Grocer in January—namely, that promotional offers in relation to the items on the right hon. Lady's list of goods which may be on continuous offer at all times were curtailed by 30 per cent. and that 15 items advertised by the Co-op the day after the announcement of "Shirley's special price offers" were found to be on sale in a Co-op during the weekend at 28 per cent. more?

    The hon. Lady should be satisfied that the voluntary agreement is being monitored most carefully by my Department. We are basing the matter on a calculation of price indices and the monitoring of the promotional material that is available to us. The hon. Lady should also realise that resources for the agreement were provided largely by the 10 per cent. cut in gross margin reference levels. While we are not endeavouring to seek price stability over the entire front, we are endeavouring to concentrate on cutting reference levels for items of particular importance. We believe that this is effectively being achieved.

    Is the Minister aware that those of us who are involved in the co-operative movement condemn the sort of instance purported to be put forward by the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim) as the true state of affairs? The hon. Lady cannot have the argument both ways. She cannot on the one hand claim that her friends in the distributive trades are maintaining the agreement and on the other hand attack the Government for the failure of the agreement.

    It is curious that the Opposition have never given full-hearted support to the voluntary agreement—an agreement which the trade has been anxious to support.

    Will the Minister agree that since there has been a 4·6 per cent. price increase through the voluntary agreement against an increase of 8·6 per cent. in the Price Code, the Government should abandon the Price Code and stick by the voluntary agreement?

    I suggest that the hon. Gentleman can have put forward that view only in a spirit of levity. However, the voluntary agreement comes to an end at the end of March, and we shall be considering whether it is the most appropriate method of seeking to concentrate benefits on the shopping baskets of housewives. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] If the Opposition have other methods in mind, I have no doubt that we shall consider them very carefully.

    Is the Minister honestly saying that the statement in the Grocer to which my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim) drew attention was totally erroneous?

    Is the Minister aware that no charge of levity could ever be raised against him?

    Following is the information:


    Pecenrage changes in Price Indices

    Percentage increase May-Dec. 1974
    Bread (per loaf) large white small white0·5
    Cheese (cheddar type)10·1
    Butter (NZ)8·8
    Milk-based infant food (full cream) (per 16 oz. tin)14·8
    Self-raising flour (per 3 lb.)-2·1
    Apples (dessert)7·4
    Beef (all cuts home and imported)-0·4
    Lamb (cheap cuts home and imported)-10·1
    Chicken portions*10·5
    Biscuits (sweet lower priced)24·9
    Electric light bulbs3·8
    Toilet soap15·9


    *Chickens—Frozen 3 lb. and fresh and chilled 4 lb.
    Chicken portions—using index for frozen 3 lb. chickens.

    Percentage increase May-Dec. 1974
    Sausages (pork and beef)5·6
    Cooking fat and lard (lard price only)16·5
    Tea (lower and medium priced) (per ¼ lb.)-2·8
    Breakfast cereals20·5
    Fish fingers-0·2
    Frozen peas and beans10·8
    Instant coffee (per 4 oz.)15·2
    Baby (infant) foods (per jar)30·0
    Canned beans in tomato sauce10·5
    Canned soup26·2


    Food Subsidies


    asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection whether she intends to increase expenditure on food subsidies.

    As I told the House on 30th January, the Government intend to continue the food subsidies programme during the coming year at broadly its present level.

    Does the Secretary of State draw any conclusion from an answer given to me last Thursday by the Minister of State, Department of Health and Social Security that even on the most favourable assumption to the Government it would be cheaper to increase pensions, supplementary benefits, family income supplement and family allowances by the exact financial weekly benefit of the food subsidy than to continue with this wasteful subsidy?

    I wish that the hon. Gentleman had paid us the courtesy of being present for the Second Reading of the Prices Bill, when this matter was discussed at great length.

    If so, he will know that one of the points made was that while the Government have introduced food subsidies they have also increased pensions and supplementary benefits and intend to increase family allowances to boot. In other words, we are doing both these things.

    Is the right hon. Lady aware that one of my constituents is very fond of cats, orders 14 pints of milk a week to feed them and is unwillingly being heavily subsidised by the taxpayer? Does not this show how ludicrous the food subsidy is?

    Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should also tell his constituent that the Conservative Government introduced the subsidy on milk and, therefore, helped her cats long ago.

    Is the right hon. Lady happy that the Government have abandoned the family endowment programme? Does she not agree that it would have been better to accept the proposal for family allowances for the first child?

    The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I made clear during the Second Reading of the new Prices Bill that the Government intend to extend family allowances to the first child but that this is a matter which requires a good deal of fresh administration. We see the subsidy programme as being linked to the phasing-in of this new benefit.

    Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Conservatives are displaying a magnificent example of their unawareness of the circumstances of life since they do not realise that it is only by subsidising the staple foods that one helps the families who could be categorised as poor?

    My hon. Friend will be aware that the take-up of means-tested benefits has not been anything like the entitlement of those whom it is intended to benefit.

    Will the right hon. Lady make a start in reducing food subsidies by doing away with the interim bread subsidy which was brought in to pay for a wage settlement?

    The hon. Gentleman knows that we are awaiting from the Price Commission a full report on various applications made to it, including that based on recent increases in the price of world wheat.

    How much of the extra costs of the food subsidy will be printed by the Government, and how much will come out of Government taxation?

    I hope that we can rely on the hon. Gentleman's support in taking it out of taxation.

    Although most Members on the Labour benches readily support the fact that Conservative Members are now calling for allowances for the first child, does not this show that a system of food subsidies is an essential part of the redistributive process in the foreseeable future?

    My hon. Friend will also recall that over a long period of time the Conservative Government did nothing to increase family allowances and nothing to extend them to the first child.

    Does the right hon. Lady recall that when the Home Secretary recently made a statement about the increase in television licence fees there was a strong request from the Labour benches that old-age pensioners should be subsidised the full amount of that increase? Does she remember that her right hon. Friend made it clear that in the Government's view it was wrong to subsidise people in that blanket fashion and that he proposed that it should be done by increasing old-age pensions and not by acting indirectly? Does not this contradict the argument which is always being advanced about food subsidies?

    There seems to be some dispute about whether my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has been directly and correctly reported, but I must point out that the increase in the black-and-white television licence fee is far less than that in the colour television licence fee because most low-income families have access to black-and-white television and not to colour television.

    Is my right hon. Friend aware of the high indirect subsidies paid on expensive foodstuffs to business men who live on expense accounts?

    My hon. Friend has raised a very fair point, and I hope that very shortly my right hon. Friend will stop up this food loophole, too.

    In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply, I beg to give notice that I shall raise the matter on the Adjournment.


    asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection whether she intends to subsidise any further foodstuffs.

    I have no plans at present for introducing new subsidy schemes.

    Does the right hon. Lady have any programme for reducing the amount of subsidies in view of the burden on the public purse?

    It has been indicated that under the present subsidy arrangements there will be a slight diminution in the level of subsidies in 1975–76.

    Will my right hon. Friend accept with what deep sorrow I heard what she has just said? Does she realise that many of us feel that it is time to consider the extension of subsidies not only to essential foodstuffs but to other essential consumer goods?

    I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend's remarks, but I can assure him that the diminution will be small.

    Will the right hon. Lady go a little further? I appreciate that in the Prices Bill there is a limit on the amount of money she is seeking, but does she agree that as there has been a reduction in the subsidy element in nationalised industries' prices there should be a comparable reduction in the subsidy element in food prices?

    It might be argued that the opposite is the case. However, the crucial point about nationalised industries' subsidies is to try to protect the less well off, and that it what the Government are trying to do.

    Following the supplementary question asked by the hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts) about increase ing the indiscriminate use of subsidies, may I inform the right hon. Lady that in Lymington there is a tremendous shortage of wide-necked bottles of Heinz tomato ketchup? When will she start to subsidise them?

    I shall leave it to the Conservative Party, when it comes to office, to do that in the indiscriminate way in which it subsidised all nationalised industry prices.

    The right hon. Lady has said that food subsidies will be met by increases in taxation. Since it is clear that there will be a deficit on the Government's borrowing requirement, how is it that only her subsidies are met by taxation and the increased expenditure of all other Departments is met by the printing of money?

    The hon. Gentleman would lead me down a long path if I were to pursue that matter too far. However, the nationalised industries' subsidy level, as the Government have made clear, is subject to gradual narrowing as we begin to bring prices up to commercial viability. Secondly, the great bulk of the food subsidy expenditure has been met—not "will be", but "has been"—by the additional income taxation and value added taxation raised in the April 1974 Budget.

    If there is a diminution in the amount of food subsidies in 1975–76, why is the Secretary of State asking for a sum of money which will enable her to increase them?

    The hon. Gentleman will be aware, as he was told during the Second Reading of the Prices Bill, that there will be a slight decline in our proposed expenditure in 1975–76.


    asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what is the latest estimate of the cost of food subsidies during the current financial year; and what is the estimated cost for the financial year ending 5th April 1976.

    The estimated cost in the current financial year is about £510 million. The cost in 1975–76 is expected to be of the order of £550 million—that is in real terms, of course —and detailed Estimates will be presented to the House in due course.

    Will the right hon. Lady tell the House how she reconciles her previous statement that she hopes to phase out food subsidies with her statement today that she proposes to increase them during the forthcoming financial year?

    The hon. Gentleman has got it very badly wrong. He should remember that a number of schemes for subsidies were introduced late in the financial year 1974–75. Therefore, we are not talking about a full year when I give him the estimated cost of £510 million. For example, tea was brought in very late in the financial year. The cost of the subsidies in a full year is estimated at £550 million. That does not allow for what changes may be made in the year. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman has based the wrong conclusion on the wrong premises.

    Will my right hon. Friend continue to subsidise the staple foods to ensure that the benefit goes to people on low incomes? However, will she bear in mind that the large companies—wholesalers and some retailers—should not be allowed to take advantage of subsidies to the extent that some of them do?

    It is my intention to do what my hon. Friend suggests in the first part of his supplementary question until there is full compensation through social benefit. I have said that to the House before. Secondly, we have no evidence that any subsidy is going to the benefit of manufacturers or retailers. However, if my hon. Friend has any evidence to the contrary I shall be grateful if he will let us have it and we will then pursue the matter with the utmost determination.

    Maximum Price Notices


    asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection how many traders have been prosecuted for failure to display notices of maximum prices.

    I have not been notified of any by the prosecution authorities in the 63 days since the only display requirements now in force—those for bread—came into operation.

    Is the hon. Gentleman aware that it has been widely held that these notices are confusing to such consumers as read them? Even weights and measures inspectors have found them to be confusing. Therefore, would it not be wise to postpone the introduction into the shops of yet further maximum price orders—butter and cheese orders are due on 17th February—until the matter can be considered during the Committee stage of the Prices Bill?

    Consumers are entitled to have available to them in every shop complete information about the maximum prices for subsidised foods. Under the present powers this has not been achieved by the public display notices. However, the Prices Bill contains other proposals which will, I think, provide for greater flexibility.

    Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate how the regulation is confusing small shopkeepers? Surely he can make a concession to stop them having to exhibit printed notices like marriage banns on the church door.

    The hon. Gentleman appears to be under a misapprehension. The design of the notices has been subject to discussion with the trade and we have modified greatly the original requirements to allow the sort of informality which I know he would welcome.

    Does my hon. Friend accept that the present situation—in other words, the absence of display notices—is even more confusing to thousands of my constituents who do not know the prices of various goods in shops, and particularly in public houses?

    My hon. Friend is quite right to express the view that many people would welcome the provision of information of this kind, and the Government are committed by the February manifesto to providing it.

    As the proposed Prices Bill amendment would exempt some shopkeepers from displaying these notices, will the hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that the Government will reimburse small shopkeepers who have already been involved in considerable and unnecessary expense?

    That matter seems appropriate for discussion during the Committee stage of the Prices Bill.

    Firework Casualties


    asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection if she is now able to issue the firework casualty figures for November 1974; and if she will make a statement.

    Statistics based on information provided by hospitals in England and Wales relating to persons who received hospital treatment for injuries caused by fireworks during the period 13th October to 9th November 1974 have just become available. I will, with permission circulate them in the Official Report, with the figures for the comparable periods in the four preceding years.

    While not expecting an answer today, may I have an assurance that as soon as these figures are published the Minister will forthwith have consultative studies and then call a conference of all the bodies and organisations interested, particularly those concerned with the campaign for firework reform?

    I have indicated that I am publishing the figures in the Official Report. I am sure that my hon. Friend, whose deep interest in this matter

    FIREWORK INJURIES IN ENGLAND AND WALES (4-week period in October/November)







    1. Family or private party267385441382433
    2. Public or semi-public party137153166139155
    3. Casual incident in street etc272422422349399
    4. Other place89119958887
    5. Do not know11810713610190
    1. Banger228356369316359
    2. Rocket70118129126160
    3. Jumping Cracker4258514746
    4. Other flyabout (flying saucer, helicopter, whirlibird etc.)52Included in 7
    5. Display Firework (e.g. Roman Candle or Coloured Fires etc.)151280262223250
    6. Home made or extracted powder2938545748
    7. Other6079838295
    8. Do not know251257312208206

    I well understand, will welcome the fact that the injuries figure for last year, the lowest ever, represents a 25 per cent. fall compared with the previous year.

    I have already given a commitment to the House that I will issue a consultative document. I hope to get it out by the end of March. Every group with a special interest and information will have the right to participate in the discussion. I doubt whether a conference as such would be the most appropriate way of dealing with this matter. This is the kind of issue in which the individual details need to be argued in depth.

    We greatly welcome the steps being taken by my hon. Friend. However, when this was a matter for the Home Office many of us had hoped to see legislation before another 5th November. I would earnestly point out that my hon. Friend must get cracking if something is to be done before then.

    Having the generosity to interpret that as an unintentional pun, I should point out that when my hon. Friend looks at the figures he will find that we were justified in waiting to see them as they may upset certain preconceived positions taken by some individuals. For example, the accident trend with organised firework displays is not as encouraging as the figures generally. Important matters of public interest are involved which merit full public discussion.

    1. Died00010
    2. Detained more than one night7080916974
    3. Sufficient to cause absence from work or equivalent12117814388104
    4. Minor injury6548921,009879965
    5. Do not know3836172221
    Over 21131195167145184
    Under 13510669768648658
    Not recorded1350
    EYE INJURIES372448449386418

    Agriculture (Price Margins)


    asked the Secretary of State for prices and Consumer Protection what progress she has made in her inquiries into the causes of the gap between the retail price of agricultural products such as beef and leather and the prices the farmer receives for cattle and hides.

    There is no special inquiry concerning agricultural products generally, but the Price Commission's study of the meat industry is continuing. My right hon. Friend has asked that it be given the highest priority.

    I am grateful to the Minister for indicating that the study is continuing. Could it be broadened into a general inquiry into why everything that the farmer has to sell has fallen in price whereas everything that he has to buy has risen in price? Surely this shows the fault in the whole marketing system which farmers' organisations and other would like to see put right, but first we must know why this is so.

    The Government are consulting the agriculture industry about the current price review. Some of the considerations to which the right hon. Gentleman has given expression will be borne in mind.

    Will the Minister assure the House that he will bring all possible influence on the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to support the National Farmers' Union in its drive for marketing boards?

    I understand that the National Farmers' Union is consulting its membership on a county-by-county basis about its reactions. We shall be interested in the outcome of the inquiries.


    Airline Passengers (Infectious Diseases)


    asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he will set up a departmental inquiry into the circumstances whereby a Sabena airline's passenger reported to have been suffering from Lassa fever was carried from Nigeria to London Airport via Brussels in unrestricted contact with other passengers and to examine what international guidelines exist covering the transportation by commercial airlines of passengers known to be suffering from infectious diseases; and if he will make a statement.

    On 30th January my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Health and Social Security stated that the circumstances of this case had been fully investigated, and indicated that his chief medical officer was examining the issues with a view to minimising any risk.

    The International Air Transport Association has recommended practices in connection with the carriage of sick or infectious persons, and many airlines—including British Airways and British Caledonian Airways—have special internal instructions. The World Health Organisation has recently issued specific guidance about the handling of Lassa fever victims and suspects and their transport, where assential. If an airline captain has doubts about a passenger's health, he would normally require medical clearance before accepting him, as I understand was done in the recent case. I shall examine with my hon. Friend the possible scope for further safeguards in this matter, but the real problem seems to lie in diagnosing the infection prior to embarkation.

    Is the Minister aware that the House will be grateful for his reply? Is he also aware that his hon. Friend the Minister of State in his answer to me on 30th January said:

    "To refuse admission to this country to any British person who was unwell and who wished to return to the United Kingdom for treatment from a tropical area would raise very serious issues of principle and practicability."—[Official Report, 30th January 1975; Vol. 885, c. 302.]
    Will he, therefore, consider what steps can be taken to reach international agreement on substantially improved arrangements for transporting passengers by air to this country when they are returning with infectious tropical diseases?

    I have already indicated in what was perhaps a rather long answer that IATA has recommended practices relating to the carriage of sick or infectious persons and that the World Health Organisation issued specific guidance about this particular disease some little time ago. Therefore, international action is being taken. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government do not view the matter with any degree of complacency.

    Does my hon. Friend accept that, while we sympathise very much with the captain of the aircraft who must have had to take the medical opinion of people at the airport, it is important that these international rules should be enforced, because there is a great likelihood that people who come into contact with Lassa fever will not only take the infection themselves but spread it widely? Will he, therefore, ensure that the airlines concerned take special precautions when they know that these regulations exist?

    My hon. Friend must realise that all responsible airlines take this matter most seriously. There is no evidence to suggest the contrary. The difficulty with this particular disease is its diagnosis. I am advised that it is very difficult to diagnose the disease and that there is at present only one organisation in the world, in Atlanta, Georgia, which has the facilities to carry out the necessary analyses that make diagnosis possible.

    Is the Minister aware that there is widespread concern about this issue and that recommendations and guidance may not be sufficient? Will he consider whether regulations should be introduced? Would not the ICAO have a rôle to play in this direction?

    If additional regulations might be of help, we will consider the matter. However, as I indicated to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody), the difficulty lies not in having regulations but in having effective diagnosis. This is most difficult with a rare disease, as this one is.


    Shipbuilding (Public Ownership)


    asked the Secretary of State for Industry when he proposes to publish the White Paper on the public ownership of the shipbuilding industry.

    It will not be possible to publish a White Paper in the time available, but a full statement on the Government's proposals will be made as soon as possible.

    I welcome the news that there will not be a White Paper, because both those in favour of and those against the proposed legislation are anxious that it should be introduced as soon as possible. Does my hon. Friend appreciate that some shipbuilders feel that their prospective plans are prejudiced until the publication of the Bill? Will he therefore do his utmost to ensure that the legislation is expedited?

    I am grateful for my right hon. Friend's remarks. We are conscious that the Shipbuilders and Repairers National Association has made clear that it accepts in principle the fact of nationalisation and is anxious to ensure the best possible organisation. We shall certainly hope to co-operate closely with the association to secure that result.

    Will the Minister ensure that in any statement which is made the greatest possible care will be given to alternative forms of calculation of any compensation, bearing in mind the alternatives of valuing on a net asset basis, and earnings basis or share price value? These are extremely important considerations in ensuring fairness in any announcement which is made.

    I am well aware of the point being made by the hon. Gentleman and of the fact that there are these alternative bases for the calculation of compensation. He will understand that I cannot at this stage indicate precisely what the form of compensation will be, otherwise there may be a good deal of undesirable speculation.

    Will my hon. Friend accept that the shorter the period of uncertainty the better, and that the sooner we get the Bill the happier we shall all be?

    I am glad to assure my hon. Friend that we propose to bring in the Bill with the minimum delay.

    Is the hon. Gentleman aware that a large number of overseas customers for ships being built in this country will be reluctant to purchase from a company which is owned by the State and that loss of orders will mean the loss of jobs? What is the hon. Gentleman going to do about that?

    I do not believe there is any evidence that foreign ship owners will be unwilling to purchase from United Kingdom shipyards. What they will be concerned about will be the quality of the product, price and delivery date, and in all those we hope to produce improvements.

    Is my hon. Friend aware that concern about this matter is as great on the Tyne as on the Wear? We do not share the prejudices and fears of Conservative Members about this matter. We want to get it expedited for the benefit of both workers and management.

    I can only again emphasise to my hon. Friend that it is our intention to introduce the Bill at the earliest possible moment. I am sure it will produce the kind of security and support that is wanted for workers at Swan Hunter as at other shipyards in the United Kingdom.

    Can the hon. Gentleman say what possible advantage can accrue to the nation by nationalising the ship repairing industry, and precisely how I can explain to my constituents in Glasgow that the Government apparently have millions of pounds to spare to nationalise industry at the same time as they have reduced the school building programme by £30 million for the current year?

    The PA Consultants' report of last year indicated considerable weaknesses in the performance of the ship repairing industry. In particular it drew attention to low investment, poor labour relations and the need for a new dry dock. Furthermore, the report indicated that the magnitude of the demand for new resources to ensure that this industry performs as well as possible was unlikely to be met from private sources.

    The hon. Gentleman is well known for his rash public statements. Can he confirm what he said, namely, that the shipbuilding industry accepts nationalisation in principle, when it must be well known to him that Vosper Thorneycroft and Swan Hunter do not? Would he like to comment on that?

    The hon. Gentleman having, as an exponent of open Government, said that there will be no White Paper, will he make sure that his further statement—which we shall all welcome—covers those matters not covered in the consultative document on the aircraft industry—namely, how much it will cost, whether it fits in with our obligations to the European Economic Community, and why he thinks it will produce a single extra ship or sell a single extra ship on foreign markets?

    The hon. Gentleman has asked at least half a dozen questions. The answer to his first question is that the SRNA has told us that it accepts nationalisation as a fact of life and is anxious to achieve the kind of organisation that will be most suitable. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the workers in the industry, who in terms of numbers form a great deal more than half of it, are satisfied and wish to press on with nationalisation as soon as possible.

    I have already indicated that because of speculation it is not possible at this stage to make clear the basis on which compensation will operate. We intend to introduce the Bill at the earliest possible opportunity.

    There is no question of any conflict with the EEC. There is nothing in the Treaty of Rome which prevents the nationalisation of industries.

    On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I think it will be within your recollection that the Minister said that the industry accepts the fact of nationalisation. Is not that a matter for the House to decide?

    Statutory Instruments


    That the draft Supplementary Benefit (Determination of Requirements) Regulations 1975 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments.—[Mr. Pendry.]


    That the draft Medicines (Dental Filling Substances) Order 1975 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments.—[Mr. Pendry.]