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European Economic Community

Volume 888: debated on Monday 17 March 1975

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asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what is her latest estimate of the effects for the British consumer of EEC membership in the field of food prices.


asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what is her latest estimate of the effects for the British consumer of EEC membership in the field of food prices and continuity of supply.


asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what effect British membership of the EEC has had on food prices in the UK since 1st January 1973 to the latest available date.

Following the decisions of the last Council of Agricultural Ministers and the transitional steps taken so far, the overall level of food prices in the United Kingdom is not at present significantly affected one way or the other by our membership of the European Community. Continuity of supply is obviously advantageous in avoiding shortages and wide fluctuations in price, though it cannot be accurately quantified.

When the right hon. Lady launches her campaign for our continued membership of the European Economic Community, will she spell out the advantages and the prices of food items which are cheaper, the continuity of supply and stability of prices, so that she can counteract some of the misleading proposals which her other Cabinet colleagues will be putting to the country?

The hon. Gentleman will recognise that my responsibility to the House is to give the most accurate factual answer I can. In the light of that, I would point out that I have said before in the House that we benefit from the EEC subsidies on sugar, that we still benefit to some extent from the monetary compensatory amounts on cereals, but that we do not benefit from the higher prices of dairy products on the Continent. Taking a balance of all these things, it is almost impossible to estimate whether there is a tiny net gain or a tiny net deficit on the total figures.

Would it not be better if my right hon. Friend were to leave answering these questions to her two very competent ministerial colleagues and whipped back to Downing Street quam celerine?

I am not sure that my Latin is as good as my hon. Friend's, but I can assure him that it is not necessary for me to do that. One of the problems in making calculations is whether to include the sugar subsidy benefit of approximately £35 million. It is not included in the calculations in such journals as the Economist, for the straightforward reason that nobody can say whether the sugar which one buys this week is or is not drawn from the EEC subsidised sugar supplies or comes, for example, from the free market. Problems of this kind make a precise statistical formulation virtually impossible.

When the right hon. Lady gets back to Downing Street, will she support her newly enlightened colleague, the Minister of Agriculture, who no doubt, will be maintaining, quite rightly, that if we remain in the EEC not only will the consumer be better protected against sudden shortages, but the producer will be better protected against sudden gluts and will thereby be given the confidence to expand domestic food production, greatly to the benefit of himself and the consumer in this country?

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture has already indicated the importance which he places on the expansion of home food production. This arises from the feeling that it may well be that the world now has behind it the era of relatively cheap food from the Third World, because of the change in the population-agricultural pattern of the world as a whole.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the common agricultural policy will be disastrous for the British consumer? Although the food subsidies maintained by the Government have kept the prices of milk, bread and cheese much lower than they are in Europe, what guarantee have we that we shall be able to maintain our policy of food subsidies?

As I have tried to indicate, assessment of the common agricultural policy turns very much on what world food prices have done or are likely to do. Any attempt at objective judgment will show that the CAP is rather different in its effects than it would have been in, say, 1971 or 1972. I assure my hon. Friend that there is no prospect of any attempt being made to interfere with the Government's food subsidy programme, which has been consistently not commented upon in any way by the EEC.

If the Common Market taxes on imported lamb, cheese and butter were abolished, would it not help to bring down the cost of living?

One has to say straight away that the tariff on lamb is one of the factors that has to go down on the negative list against the CAP. I understand that it is one of the factors that has tended to make food more expensive, just as the subsidies on sugar and the monetary compensatory amounts on cereals have tended to make them cheaper The hon. Gentleman is not wrong in saying that that is one factor that works the other way.

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that our experience since joining the Community is that the sort of fears expressed about the CAP and the Treaty of Rome were figments of theology and bear no relationship to the practical experience of our Ministers in negotiation?

I have tried to indicate, practical experience is that there has been very little difference, one way or the other, in the light of the increased world food prices over the last two years. As for the rest, the judgment of the House and the United Kingdom depends on what is believed to be the likely course of food prices over the next few years.


asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection which main foodstuffs imported into the United Kingdom are now either markedly cheaper or markedly more expensive than they would be if the United Kingdom were outside the EEC.

Taking account of EEC-financed subsidies, most imported cereals and sugar are cheaper than if we were not a member. Some dairy products and some imports on which duties are now charged, such as lamb and certain canned products, are probably somewhat more expensive than if we were not a member.

Will the Secretary of State arrange for the clear and balanced language which she used on this topic about 10 minutes ago to appear in the Government's White Paper on Europe? Is it not important that people should realise that withdrawal from the Community, far from bringing down the general level of food prices would probably push up bread and sugar prices and make supplies much more uncertain than they are today?

The White Paper must carry the fullest statement of the facts which the Government can put before the public and on which the public can base their judgment. Among the things that will have to go in is the effect of subsidies where they exist, but also the effect the other way where that exists.

Will my right hon. Friend accept that on this sort of issue, on which there will be considerable controversy in coming months, it is dangerous to enter into hypothetical matters and to discuss statistics for which there is no basis one way or the other? Does she not agree that the best thing to say about this matter on either side of the fence is that it has little effect one way or the other on food prices?

I think my hon. Friend is right. If both of us endeavour, from our particular points of view, to be factual with the House, we have to say that at the moment—the position changes from month to month—the existence of the CAP makes virtually no difference one way or the other to the price of food in Britain.