Govt backs milk price probe

A parliamentary select committee inquiry into milk prices will be launched after the National Party caucus today gave it the green light.

Cabinet yesterday agreed to support an inquiry but the final sign-off was needed from caucus, which this morning confirmed its support.

Prime Minister John Key said the inquiry still needed the support of the other political parties on the commerce select committee.

However, that support is unlikely to be a stumbling block with both Labour and the Greens pushing for an inquiry since the Commerce Commission last week decided not to hold a formal investigation.

Asked whether the inquiry could result in law changes to control prices, Mr Key said he did not want to pre-judge the outcome

"Select committees have very wide-ranging powers, they can subpoena people to come and give evidence in the House, they can look into any range of matters that they determine is appropriate through their terms of reference," he said.

"Certainly they've got the capacity to ask all of the players the right questions, make their own decisions and analysis about whether they think there is a competitive and fair market for New Zealand consumers and I guess, ultimately, make recommendations."

Mr Key yesterday said he was concerned a select committee inquiry could "cut across" the work of an inter-departmental group looking into raw milk prices and indicated it should be "highly directed at where it makes sense".

The select committee itself would determine the terms of reference and call for submissions.

Committee chairwoman Lianne Dalziel today said she was hopeful hearings could be held and a report presented to Parliament ahead of the election.

There were many issues to look at and not much time, she said.

"I'm hoping that the terms of reference can be relatively broad and then we can narrow our focus as the issues come to the fore."

She agreed there could be crossover issues with the inter-agency review, but it was important to get the issues into the public arena.

"The officials are looking at specific elements of that pricing pathway, but they are also doing that behind closed doors. I think the public would like some public scrutiny applied and that is what the select committee can do," she said.

The committee could make recommendations to Parliament but did not have the power to change laws, she said.

"But I think the most powerful element of what we can do is to put everything into the public arena and give it the scrutiny it deserves."

Asked about National's support for the inquiry, Ms Dalziel said the Government often made decisions it was going to be forced into anyway.

"I was not confident last week that we would get the inquiry. That certainly has been turned around," she said.

"I believe that the weight of public pressure had a lot to do with it as well, there were lots of people calling for an inquiry."



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