§ 42. Mr. J. Morris
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a further statement on beef supplies.
§ The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Christopher Soames)
Beef is short partly because Argentina is unable to send us her usual supplies and partly because of the demand on world supplies from Continental countries. On the other hand home supplies should be well maintained and there are good supplies of other meat available.
As regards the prospects for the rest of this year, I cannot add to the reply which I gave to the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) on 11th May, when I indicated that I do not anticipate a further fall in imports of fresh and chilled beef and that there will be a rise in frozen beef supplies.
§ Mr. Morris
Does the Minister recall that two years ago he had to come to 912 the House to ask for a Supplementary Estimate for £78 million, principally for beef? Does he agree that his present policy still results in uncertainty as to how much the housewife will have to pay week by week for the meat which she buys; secondly, how much the Exchequer will have to provide; and, thirdly, how much the farmer will eventually get for the calf which he raises? Has not the time come for a thorough inquiry as to where the subsidies go and what effect they are having, and should there not be some co-ordination between home supplies, home needs and overseas trade?
§ Mr. Soames
The difference between the year to which the hon. Gentleman referred and this year was that there was a total difference in the world supply and demand situation. No policy devised by Her Majesty's Government could influence the output of beef from the Argentine in any one year following upon a drought, or indeed the level of demand or the level of output on the continent of Europe.
§ Sir Richard Glyn
Would not my right hon. Friend agree that the number of beef cattle imported into this country in the first four months of this year was more than treble the amount of beef cattle exported from it and, further, that the increase in the number of beef cattle imported over the number imported in the corresponding period last year was more than half as much again as the increase in the number exported in the same period?
§ Mr. Soames
I would not without notes give exact confirmation of the figures my hon. Friend suggests, but the figures of imports were infinitely greater than any figures of exports.
§ Mr. Peart
Surely the Minister must accept some responsibility? His failure has led to rationing by the purse of a very important commodity, and the price of beef has increased considerably. Is not the Minister aware that the crisis in the Argentine should have been known months ago and he should have acted much more quickly? Will he give an assurance that he will stimulate production over the next two years? Can he say what will be the extent of supplies from the Commonwealth?
§ Mr. Soames
The reason for the rise in the price of beef on our market in recent months has been the fact that we pursue here a free market from which the people of this country have drawn enormous benefit over the years. What the hon. Gentleman means by "rationing by the purse" is that the price of beef has risen because of the alteration in the balance of supply and demand. We look forward to the opportunity when he will tell the House and the country what he will do—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—when he will tell the House what arrangements he would make other than allowing the price of meat to rise, which inevitably happens in the workings of a free market when the supply and demand balance has changed.
§ Mr. Turton
Would my right hon. Friend agree that a great deal of damage is being done by exaggeration of the shortages of supply and, still more, by exaggeration of the increases in price, which in many cases have not happened at all?
§ Mr. Soames
I know that my right hon. Friend will have noticed that, although the prices rose over a matter of some weeks earlier in the year, in the past couple of weeks they have in fact been falling.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his statement this afternoon will be small comfort to the housewives who have continually been paying increasing prices? If the statement of the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) is true, does it not mean that the people concerned in selling beef use the housewife as a pawn in the game to get more profits from the so-called shortages? What assurance will the Minister give to the housewife that she will be able to buy beef at reasonable prices in the future?
§ Mr. Soames
I disagree profoundly with the hon. Lady. I believe that housewives appreciate the great advantages they have gained and do gain from the operation of the free market in this country they would not like it to be interfered with.