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House of Commons Hansard
06 December 2016
Volume 618

  • I beg to move,

    That this House has considered household food insecurity measurement in the UK.

    It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. Back in 2014, I said in this House:

    “People are going hungry, and, with each passing day of this terrible excuse for a Government, more and more are falling into poverty, with little or no chance of escape. There are no second chances in Britain today. Food poverty is a clear consequence of the Government’s ideological assault on the social safety net and the people who rely on it. One hungry person is a complete disgrace, but thousands of hungry people are a national disaster.”—[Official Report, 12 December 2014; Vol. 589, c. 1500.]

    That was one of many speeches I have made in this House about hunger and food poverty, and I have to say that I am getting increasingly fed up with the Government’s inaction. It is estimated that 8.4 million people in Britain now live in households affected by food insecurity, which means that millions of people in Britain—one of the wealthiest countries in the world—are hungry and malnourished.

    The Government need to measure and to begin to tackle household food insecurity. Such action is long overdue. Food-insecure households lack reliable access to a sufficient quantity of food, yet there has been no national measurement of household food insecurity in the UK for more than 10 years.

  • I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. Is she aware that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, of which she is a former member, is currently conducting an inquiry into food waste? It is concentrating not on household waste but on food waste that is discarded by the producer because it does not fit the requirements of either the retailer or the processor. Does she agree that such food waste could help those who are suffering from food poverty?

  • I am aware of the EFRA Committee’s inquiry, and it would be good for the Government to back the Food Waste (Reduction) Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy).

    Although we have national statistics on how much households have spent on food and on individuals’ dietary intake, those data cannot tell us exactly how many households in the UK are unable to feed themselves adequately.

  • I thank my hon. Friend for securing such a vital debate. Does she agree that the rate of the problem is not constant throughout the year: there are peaks and troughs? Some families struggle in the run-up to Christmas and during school holidays because their children do not go to breakfast clubs or receive free school meals. If there is no additional support from the Government, the issue of holiday hunger will become more prevalent. Parents have to find the money for an additional 10 meals per week per child to ensure that their children are not malnourished.

  • My hon. Friend is correct: holiday hunger is a scourge on this country. In a former life, I was a child protection social worker, and families used to say to me that school time was the only time their children could be guaranteed a healthy meal. They dreaded holidays. My colleagues and I often had to do shops for those families to feed them.

  • I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. She started off by giving the Government a very hard time. I am not a spokesman for the Conservatives but, in 1996—20 years ago—the United Nations decided that it would eradicate food insecurity. What has it done since then?

  • Unfortunately, I am not here to speak on behalf of the United Nations, but all the statistics show that the situation has got worse in the United Kingdom since 2010. Prior to that, we had the odd soup kitchen, and food banks were unheard of. Now, we can hear people in every street in every constituency talking about food banks and people who are going hungry.

    Food insecurity has a terrible impact on households. Parents are unable to afford to feed their children nutritionally balanced meals, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) said, which breeds a sense of shame, stress, anxiety and social isolation. Severely food-insecure adults and children go whole days without eating in this day and age, simply because they lack money. People are living on the bread line—in fact, many are living below it. Recent research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that people are going from just being hungry—as if that was not bad enough—to living in destitution. They lack clothing, toiletries and heating, and for many homelessness is becoming a reality.

    Recently, a woman called my constituency office in desperate need of help after having problems with her benefits. She had no money for gas or electricity, and no food to feed herself and her four young children, all of whom are under 10 years of age. She was alone and unable to leave her home to get to the nearest food bank, which in any case was closed. Even if she had been able to leave her home, she did not have the necessary funds for public transport. In the end, my staff contacted one of the many food bank volunteers in Shields and managed to get food delivered to her and her children. If they had not been able to pick up and deliver that food, that family would have endured the further pain of starvation.

    That is one of the everyday experiences that are being documented in food banks, GP offices, classrooms and charities across the country. I am sure that all my colleagues hear similar stories day in and day out from their constituents. When the all-party group on hunger, of which I am a member, travelled the country in 2014, we found that the overriding reason why people visited food banks was the Government’s punitive welfare regime and incessant use of sanctions. The recent debacle with Concentrix shows that the Government’s response to those who are most in need has not changed: they are simply not bothered about them.

    All those personal tragedies point to a permanent scarring of life chances. Demonstrable links can be found between food insecurity and educational performance. Children’s intellectual and physical development is damaged by each episode of food insecurity that they experience. The physical and mental health impacts of food insecurity affect the entire economy. Evidence from Canada suggests that the healthcare costs of people who have experienced episodes of severe food insecurity are 121% higher. For those reasons, there is growing consensus among not only Members of Parliament but academics and civil society organisations that the Government should initiate a programme of regular and robust monitoring of food insecurity prevalence so that we can establish precisely the magnitude of the problem, identify which groups are at the greatest risk and properly target resources at prevention.

  • I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. This is a very important issue. She is right to say that the Government have a responsibility to count the numbers so we can have a strategic response. In the meantime, we have to recognise the wonderful work that food banks do—she mentioned her own, and Slough food bank is brilliant—to plug the gap. Civil society is doing its best; it is time for the Government to step up, too.

  • I could not agree more.

  • An extraordinary feature of the debate is that other countries, which we consider allies, already view this as a state responsibility. In the United States, for example, to tackle holiday hunger, there is a federal programme, which has been federally funded—there has been no research—for more than 50 years. That is part of the country’s normal engagement. Feeding one’s citizens is definitely regarded as a Government responsibility. Does my hon. Friend agree that our Government need to open their eyes and look at things in the round, because not only people on benefits, but the working poor are struggling to feed their families?

  • I agree. The very least that any Government can do is to ensure that people in their country are fed and cared for when other parts of the state have let them down.

    Our best estimates suggest that 500,000 different people received food assistance from the Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest network of emergency food aid providers, in 2014-15. However, many, indeed most food-insecure people choose not to access emergency food aid, and not all food banks are Trussell Trust ones. New preliminary data from Gallup World Poll suggest that 8.4 million people—17 times the number accessing Trussell Trust aid—lived in food-insecure households in 2014. Those data were gathered through the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation food insecurity experience scale, which is an internationally validated tool for measurement of household food insecurity. It showed that we ranked in the bottom half of European countries for protecting our population from food insecurity and hunger.

    Unfortunately, the survey through which those data were collected had a national sample of only 1,000 households and did not collect detailed information on respondents’ characteristics. We therefore do not know who is worst affected. What is more, the FAO does not intend to fund that survey beyond 2016. Instead, it will encourage states to produce national measures in their own routine national surveys. That includes us. If we did so, we would be able to track our progress on implementing the global sustainable development goals—to which the UK has said it is committed—intended to end hunger and ensure universal access to safe, nutritious food by 2030.

    On 29 November, the Office for National Statistics was due to launch a consultation to establish what metrics should be incorporated into national statistics to track our progress on the goals. The consultation has now been delayed indefinitely. We should, however, move forward swiftly and decisively with such vital monitoring. It would put us in step with other nations, such as the USA and Canada, which regularly monitor prevalence rates, with the data collected playing a game-changing role in creating effective prevention strategies.

  • We heard an extraordinary story about food poverty in the run-up to this year’s Olympics in Brazil, which has made access to food a human right and, therefore, has provided access to food not only for children and the most vulnerable, but for everyone—from the poorest to the wealthiest. It has done so from an economic position that is nowhere near as positive as our own.

  • Our country is lagging behind. Our response to the crisis is embarrassing, and things have never been more pressing. Only last week we heard that the number of hospital beds in England alone taken up by patients being treated for malnutrition almost trebled over 10 years. Malnutrition is a complex condition, but food insecurity adds a significant risk. The prevalence of both may well increase if left unchecked in the coming years.

  • I commend the hon. Lady for securing this important debate. The experience of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the Autism Act 2009, for example, is that the core initiative is to ensure an obligation on the state, or parts of the state, to know the numbers and to identify the needs. Essentially, that is what she is calling for in this debate. That has to happen not only at a UK level, but at regional and local level because, in relation to holiday hunger, school holidays vary in length in different parts of the UK.

  • I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Later in my speech I will outline to the Minister how easy it is to introduce such a measure and how little it would cost.

    The drop in the value of sterling as a result of Brexit uncertainties means that food prices will start to rise—by between 5% and 8% in the coming year, according to the Food and Drink Federation—and that will place even further pressure on households struggling to put food on the table. On average, healthier food costs two and a half times as much as food high in fat, salt and sugar, and people who experience food insecurity often cut back first on healthy, perishable and more expensive fruit and vegetables.

    Proposals for measurement have received a considerable amount of support in the UK. In January 2015, my colleagues and I on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee recommended that the Government should collect statistically robust data on the scale of household food insecurity. The APPG on hunger has recommended measuring and monitoring food insecurity. The Administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are starting work on the development of metrics for each of the devolved nations. A UK-wide picture of the nature of food insecurity, however, could not be formed without applying a standard measurement tool in all four nations.

    Securing a commitment to measurement from the Government has, however, proved immensely difficult. That is despite the interventions of the APPG and of the EFRA Committee, debates and questions in the House, and the work of organisations such as the Food Foundation, Sustain and Oxfam, which have consistently brought the data gap to the attention of officials in a variety of Departments.

    The data gap could easily be closed through inserting a short list of questions into an existing annual survey instrument, such as the living costs and food survey or the national health surveys. The marginal cost is estimated to be between £50,000 and £75,000 per year. Surely it is worth the Government investing that small sum to address one of the biggest scandals of our time.

    The UN food insecurity experience scale, and the United States Department of Agriculture’s household food security module from which it was adapted, have been rigorously designed and tested to measure the inability of households to access food. One of those tools could be inserted seamlessly into a UK research programme. Each of the international scales involves asking respondents a series of questions about their ability to access sufficient quality and quantity of food over the preceding 12 months.

    I therefore urge this House to move towards annual measurement of food insecurity using an internationally recognised survey tool, beginning in 2017. The Government cannot continue to bury their heads in the sand when this is one of the biggest scandals of the past six years. They should be ashamed that hunger has grown on their watch and they should be doing all they can to stop such a grotesque blight on our society.

    We are at grave risk of accepting food poverty and inequality as a normal part of society. Due to Government inaction and erosion of the welfare state, the safety net that once existed, which used to aid people who fell through it through no fault of their own when they fell on difficult times, has been stripped away. The gap is being filled by a range of charities and faith groups, and it should embarrass and shame the Minister and all his colleagues that they have sat back and allowed others to deal with this heart-breaking disaster of, at times, their very own creation.

    Is that not the crux of the matter? In truth, the longer the Government refuse to measure the problem, the longer they do not have to acknowledge the scale of it and the longer they do not have to do anything about it. That is a huge dereliction of duty. They are more than happy to allow charities and the likes of the Trussell Trust to do their job for them, which is to care for children, families and vulnerable individuals who are not able to meet the most basic human requirement to feed themselves. It is telling that, when the Trussell Trust first published its shocking statistics about the scale of the problem, some on the Government Benches denounced those figures as distorted, rather than focusing on the shocking fact that food banks exist on such a scale at all.

    As I speak, in my constituency, there will be a mother wondering how she is going to feed herself and her toddler today, schoolchildren struggling to focus because their stomachs are rumbling, parents who yet again skipped breakfast to ensure that their children did not have to, families searching their cupboards for what is left and elderly people who are unable to access fresh food. But that is not just the case in my constituency; it is the situation in constituencies and homes across the UK. It really is time that this Government got a grip on this problem. They must start by collating the data that they need to address it. As I have outlined, implementing measurement is not an insurmountable or costly challenge, and this Government owe it to every man, woman and child who woke up hungry this morning and will go to bed hungry tonight, in one of the richest countries in the world, to do so.

  • It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I commend the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) for setting the scene so well and giving us so much detail about this issue, which we all have an interest in and wish to speak about. It is always nice to see the shadow Minister in her place. I know that the Minister will touch on the issues that we raise, because he is a man of compassion and understands them only too well.

    I was speaking to my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) before the debate started, and I cast my mind back to the situation when I was younger—that was not yesterday—and the things that our families had at that time. I was extremely blessed as a child to have parents who worked night and day to put food on the table. We may not have had the choicest cuts of meat, and we may have had lunches that were eggs in a cup and that was it, or dinners of potatoes and veg with no meat, but there was always filling food on the table. Those memories of my early days are particular to me but probably resonate with many others in the Chamber. My biggest insecurity about food was whether my two brothers would steal half a sausage from my plate. That was a fact of life—we challenged one another for what we had. We may not have had much to spare, but we had enough, and that is all anyone needs. We had a lovely upbringing, but we were by no means wealthy.

    It breaks my heart to think that there are children in the UK—in my community and in the communities of everyone in the Chamber today—who are living hand to mouth. The hon. Member for South Shields set that scene very well, and it resonates directly with us all. I hate to think of mothers taking less on their plates to ensure that there is enough on their children’s plates. That should surely be the stuff of second world war TV dramas such as “Home Fires” as opposed to what is happening in the UK today, but there are indicators that it is not a thing of the past. Indeed, recent analysis by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, which my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann referred to, suggests that 8.4 million people in the UK live in food-insecure households. What does that mean? The UN said that it would eradicate food poverty and insecurity by a certain time, but it did not. Words are hollow if they do not lead to actions that ensure change. Notes from a recent meeting in this place say that to be food insecure means to be

    “unable to secure enough food of sufficient quality and quantity to stay healthy and participate fully in society.”

    I welcome the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s inquiry into waste, which the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) and my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann, who are members of that Committee, referred to and another member of that Committee told me about at a function last night. How do we address food waste in homes, businesses and supermarkets? In Strangford—I believe that this is happening in other constituencies too, but hon. Members will confirm whether that is the case—supermarkets have deals with community groups about food that is coming close to being out of date. For instance, Tesco and Asda in Newtownards phone community groups on a Friday or Saturday and say, “This food is going out of date. Can you make use of it?” Those groups can, and they take it directly to the people who need it.

  • Does the hon. Gentleman agree that labelling—sell-by dates and use-by dates—is not only confusing but an imprecise science? That needs to be reviewed as part of the wider debate about food waste reduction.

  • The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I hope that the Committee’s inquiry will address labelling, which we also talked about last night. We often have products that are near their sell-by dates, and my wife is very strict about them, but I am perhaps not so strict. I feel that the sell-by date may not necessarily mean that the product is not edible, and I therefore challenge myself to eat it. Whether that is right or wrong, it has not affected me in any way. It is not the reason why my hair fell out, and it is not the reason for many other things.

  • Mr Gapes, I may have the same problem with my hair falling out.

  • Let’s not go there.

  • I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that there needs to be some process whereby when supermarkets reject certain foods, such as vegetables, because they are not the right shape, size or whatever, they are put on the shelves at a reduced price rather than put into anaerobic digesters. I know that some supermarkets are doing that, but more could be done.

  • The knowledge that my hon. Friend brings to this debate is enormous. He has been in business for many years and he knows the system. Again, those words could be used in the inquiry, which he will be directly involved in as a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.

    Supermarket chains are taking steps to enable products that are close to their sell-by dates to be given to community groups and directed to those in need. That is a great idea, which I welcome and I hope is carried out further afield. In the home, we need to be a wee bit more careful about the food we use, how we use it—from freezer to fridge—and its shelf life. Those are all important issues for us to look at. However, there is currently no routine measurement of food insecurity in the United Kingdom, and an absence of regular data collection means that the true magnitude of the problem remains hidden. Perhaps the Minister could give us some idea of how data are gathered, collated and then used to address this issue.

    The hon. Member for South Shields referred to food banks. I do a lot of work with my local food bank. When I first began that interaction, I was shocked by the level of need in my constituency and the range of people who were struggling. The first Trussell Trust food bank in Northern Ireland was in my constituency, so I have particular knowledge of food banks. I do not see them as necessarily negative; they have positive effects, in that they bring people, churches and Government bodies together with one focus: to help those who need help now. Food banks have a positive role to play in our society. I always think of the Simon slogan, “One in three of us are just one pay cheque away from homelessness.” The issue is real for a great many of us: there but for the grace of God would any of us be too. It is not enough simply to be thankful that we are not in that scenario. It is up to us to ensure that families in the United Kingdom are safe and secure in knowing where their next week’s food will come from.

    Just last Saturday morning, I had the privilege of helping out in Tesco with the food bank team, who handed out lists to people to let them know what many people will need over the Christmas period. I was not surprised by the level of giving, as I know the compassion of the people in my constituency is hard to equal—as indeed is that of many others. I was encouraged by the inherent goodness of the women who rushed around with their children tagging along behind them and still took the time to grab handfuls of items for the food bank. They asked what items the team wanted and put them in their trolleys. There were also men who put items in their trolleys and gave financial contributions. I was also most encouraged by the number of young people who did their best to help out. Children said, “Mum, we need to help—what can we do?”

    It is wonderful that the community steps in, and I cannot speak highly enough of the food bank, the Trussell Trust and, in my area, the Thriving Life church, which was behind that initiative, and which has a wonderful compassion centre designed to help others out. The churches across the whole of my constituency, and in Ards in particular, came together to stand in the breach in the truest and best ecumenical sense. We in this place as well have an obligation to assess the need and meet it.

    Through the food bank, I have had the ability to give vouchers to people I am helping who have had their benefits stopped. We know clearly what the issues are, and I am reliably informed that the advice centre in Newtownards is one of the first stops for a great many people whenever they are looking for vouchers to help them because they have literally no money. With the recent tax credits palaver, I have even had staff members —I am blessed with good staff—put their own money on to electricity cards to see people through the weekend. That is my staff, other staff, churches—good people coming together to do their best. However, that should not have to happen. We have a responsibility to ensure that help is at hand for those whose benefits are called into question instead of them being left with nothing to feed their children with. Our churches and people come together in the very best sense.

    In my own area of Newtownards, the food bank provided 2,230 three-day emergency crisis food parcels last year. That was in one town. We have many food bank outreaches in Comber, Kircubbin, Ballynahinch and Saintfield, and churches and individual bodies are stepping outside what they normally do to help directly. I see a community full of compassion that is moved to help those who are less well off. That has got to be great news.

    Especially at this time of year, as we approach Christmas, many families will again be on the breadline. Some of the major companies in my area will make contributions—I have a local butcher who gives turkeys. We do our best to come together through the Trussell Trust food bank and the Thriving Life church in Newtownards. In 2015-16, the Trussell Trust food bank network provided—these are incredible figures—1,109,309 three-day emergency food supplies and support to UK people in crisis. Those enormous figures give us an idea of the magnitude of what it does. Of those, more than 400,000 went to children. Again, I underline the clear need of children in poverty. We are here today to make a plea for those people.

    There is food insecurity in the UK—that much is clear. What we are doing to address it is not so clear. I look to the Minister, who I am confident will give us the answers we need, to outline the steps that will be urgently taken to ensure that we fulfil our obligations and responsibilities not only to our constituents but to all constituents across this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

  • It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) particularly on her perseverance in securing the debate, which she has sought for more than six months. It is unfortunate that she is not too well today, but no one can say that she has not made an excellent case. We need to thank her for all the work she has done herself and as part of the APPG on hunger, which has also done a lot of work. If the Government had accepted some of the recommendations of the APPG’s detailed report, “Feeding Britain”, produced under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), there may have been a little less need for the debate. There were 72 recommendations in that report and now, two years on, it is perhaps an indictment of the Government that none of those recommendations has been heeded.

    In raising this issue today, my hon. Friend has made the case for the Government to start measuring food insecurity across the whole of the UK. Her request was eloquently illustrated and reinforced in interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth), my right hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), the hon. Members for South Down (Ms Ritchie), for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and for Upper Bann (David Simpson) and in the speech by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who pointed out how, in the face of adversity, communities have come together and worked with groups such as the Trussell Trust to help people, showing that, when the worst things happen to fellow human beings across the UK, it brings out the best in others.

    I am glad to hear that the EFRA Committee is looking at food waste. Only last night, we had FareShare in Westminster. It is making a huge contribution by using 10,000 tonnes of the 270,000 tonnes a year of food waste and producing 65 million meals. That is wonderful, but, again, so much more could be done.

    We need look only at Hansard to see that hunger and food insecurity have been raised time and again with various Departments. We also know that, in response to questions, Ministers have, time and again, found an excuse not to introduce any kind of measurement. The fact remains, as has already been said, that food insecurity has not been measured in this country since 2003. It is totally unacceptable that, in the UK—I will say this again; it has been said twice before—more than 8 million people lived in households reporting having insufficient food. That was back in 2014, and we know that that number must now be far larger. The statistics are nothing but shocking, and it is totally unacceptable that here, in the sixth largest economy in the world, in the 21st century, so many people are going hungry and, perhaps we should say, are starving.

    I congratulate all the organisations that have been mentioned that are working hard to combat the effects of food insecurity. I agree with the Food Foundation that the Government must conduct research to find out more about why certain groups are affected and how food insecurity affects food choices and people’s health so that they can put in place policies that can start to tackle the problem laid out by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields. As we have heard, the devolved Administrations are taking steps individually to measure food inequality, but each is using a different method. What is really needed is a standard measure for food insecurity across the whole of our nation.

    It is nearly two years since the EFRA Committee, in its report, recommended that the Government

    “collect objective and statistically robust data on the scale of household food insecurity”.

    The coalition Government responded by saying that the issue was complex, and they did not agree that the living costs and food survey was suitable for collecting data on food insecurity.

    As has been said, we know the use of food banks has ballooned to more than 1 million in the past year, but we cannot use the figures collected by the Trussell Trust on the use of food banks because they are not regarded as an appropriate measure. Recent data from Gallup World Poll indicated that, in 2014, 17 times more people lived in food insecure households than used a food bank.

    The Government are signed up to the United Nations sustainable development goals, the second of which is:

    “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”.

    Does the Minister agree that it is time for the Government to be proactive, and not only to contribute to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation but to listen to the advice of the University of Oxford, the Food Foundation and Sustain, which all suggest, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields has said, that standard questions on food insecurity, as used in the UN FAO food insecurity experience scale, should be added to existing UK surveys such as the one suggested by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee two years ago?

    It has already been pointed out that the cost of adding those pertinent questions, which so far have been tried out only in a survey of 1,000 people, would be £50,000 to £75,000 a year. They would provide accurate nationwide data about how severe the problem of food insecurity is. The scale is used in other countries and has proved successful. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North has said, if Brazil can do it, so can we. The consultation by the ONS on how to track the sustainable development goals, which was due to be launched at the end of November, has been put back indefinitely. What can the Minister do to bring it forward and to ensure that the consultation begins?

    With the reduction in sterling since the referendum on the EU, the prices of products that we import from Europe such as fresh fruit, which is a basic and important ingredient of a healthy diet, will increase. I must reiterate that supermarket prices will increase by at least 5%. Can something be done to stop more pressure being put on the food purchasing power of those who are deemed to be just about managing, and those who are deemed not to be managing adequately, so that food insecurity will be made less, not more, likely for them?

    We have already noted that people in food insecurity have poor health, and the NHS is at breaking point, unable to take the added strain that is put on it when people’s health is at risk simply because they are malnourished. How can we allow the blighting of the future of young people who go to school hungry and, because they are not fed, cannot learn properly? The only answer to those questions is that the Government must commit to the adoption of a routine method of measuring food insecurity in the UK, so that policy and resources can be targeted and we can reach the point at which no one in this country goes hungry.

  • I congratulate the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) on securing the debate. I know that as she outlined in her speech, she has been engaged with the issue for several years. Although I disagree with some of her analysis, we can all agree that the food banks in all our constituencies do fantastic work. I want to pay tribute in particular to the one in my constituency of Camborne and Redruth, which is run by a wonderful volunteer called Don Gardner and supported by many local churches. I have visited it regularly over the past few years. When I visited a few weeks ago it had support from National Citizen Service volunteers, who were giving some of their time as part of their project. Last year, because the charity is so valued, it was nominated by students at the local Camborne Science and International Academy as their charity of the year. I shall visit again in a few weeks as part of the preparations for Christmas, and I am sure that many hon. Members will be doing the same in their constituencies.

    The food bank movement has grown in recent years, there is no doubt about that. However, we must recognise that there has always been charitable support and food aid on offer in this country, whether from the Salvation Army or other projects. Food banks were developed first in the United States, and the concept caught on in countries such as France and Germany. More recently, predominantly with the leadership of church groups, they have grown in the UK as well. We should recognise their value and contribution to civil society. Many food banks, including the one in my constituency, are beginning to move on from offering just crisis aid and food support to helping people with other problems—with housing, getting a job, or other problems and issues in their lives that contribute to their need to rely on food banks. Indeed, in my constituency other agencies are brought on board, to come to the food bank. My constituency caseworker will go to the Camborne food bank this afternoon. We have an agreement that our caseworker will attend once a month, or more often if there is a need, to help people to resolve other issues in their life, such as housing and benefits. The Government have also made it clear that job coaches from local jobcentres can go to food banks to help to support people in getting a job.

    I want to talk about aspects of the analysis that the hon. Member for South Shields gave with which I disagree slightly, beginning with food prices, which I think are the nub of the debate. Food prices, and commodity prices generally, are predominantly governed by changes in weather events, energy prices and exchange rates. The truth is that the biggest spike in food prices in recent times took place in 2008, during the financial crisis. Prices continued to rise gradually until the beginning of 2014, but they have been falling ever since, for almost three years now. In fact, food prices are now down by more than 7% since that peak at the beginning of 2014. I accept that with sterling depreciating against the euro and other currencies recently, and because currencies and exchange rates are a major driver of food prices, that may change, but it is important to acknowledge how things have changed in the past three years, with food prices going down substantially.

    The long-standing measure of household food security that we have is the annual living costs and food survey. We look in particular at the percentage of household income spent on food by the poorest 20% of families. The reality of that consistent measure of household food security and affordability, which we have had for many years, is that it has been remarkably stable in the past decade at about 16% to 16.5%. Indeed, at one point last year I think the percentage spent by that lowest-income 20% of households was lower than it was in 2008-09. So there is clear evidence that there is some stability, if we look specifically at household spending.

  • Is it true that people suffering food insecurity do not buy the best food that they could—the food they need to have a nutritious meal? Do they not often buy food that is calorie-laden, cheap and filling, as opposed to good-quality, nutritious food?

  • Given that food prices go up and down but household expenditure on food seems to remain remarkably consistent, it suggests, as the hon. Lady points out, that people change their choices and preferences. The hon. Member for South Shields made the point that people abandon fruit and veg because they regard it as too expensive. In my view, veg is actually relatively cheap at a supermarket or any other market. It tends to be other things—ready meals and meats, in particular—that are more expensive and add to the cost of food. Fruit and veg, which are the healthiest option of all, are still relatively cheap.

  • One of the reasons for that given by people who are in food insecurity is the relatively short life of some fruit and veg. Fruit and veg is perhaps beyond the tight budgets of those who cannot afford to buy fresh food every day.

  • I buy fresh fruit and veg, as I am sure do many other Members. Somebody made a point earlier about sell-by dates. The truth is that veg will actually last quite a long time if it is refrigerated, in my view. Of course, there is also frozen fruit and veg, which is also relatively cheap.

  • The Minister is being most generous to all of us in giving way. I am sure he recognises the importance of home economics classes for children at every level of school, including primary and, particularly, secondary schools. Those classes are and should be very much part of pupils’ lives. They give them the opportunity to produce a meal at a reasonable price, and it is good for a child or young person to do that and take that meal home. Does the Minister value home economics education in schools and how it teaches people to prepare meals in later life, as I do?

  • I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. He will be aware that the Department for Education launched the school food plan two or three years ago. Hardwired into that, as well as giving schools quite specific criteria about the type of healthy and nutritious food they should have as part of their school meals, was the idea that all schoolchildren should visit a farm, so that they can see how their food is produced and understand the connection with that food production. There was also the idea that primary school children should be taught to prepare a basic food dish, so that they get used to managing and handling food. That means that they know where their food comes from and how to handle it. I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman that that is an important point.

    The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has recently consulted on all of its statistical surveys. For each Office for National Statistics survey, including the living costs and food survey, there is a steering group that also includes representation from the devolved Administrations.

    As we all know, the best route out of poverty is to have a job or to find employment. It is important to note that employment is now at a record high, at more than 74.5%, and that the number of people in work has actually gone up by 461,000 this year, to record levels. I recognise that in many constituencies, including my own, the issue is not so much worklessness as low pay. That is why the Government are increasing the national living wage to £7.50 from April 2017—and we have made clear that we intend to increase it further. We need to tackle low income, and we have outlined our plans to do so.

  • Will the Government actually check and enforce that the national living wage is being paid? Their record on that is woeful; a lot of places do not pay the national living wage and the Government are just not interested.

  • It is not a DEFRA role to enforce that particular area, but I am sure that the Low Pay Commission and other parts of Government will look seriously at the points the hon. Lady raises. Payment of the national living wage is a legal requirement, and it is enforced.

  • It is generous of the Minister to give way. Does he accept that under-25s are not entitled to the higher rate of the minimum wage and are not going to get any kind of discount when they go to the shops for their messages? The Government should make sure that the living wage is a real living wage, as set by the Living Wage Foundation, and is accessible to people of all ages. Everyone needs access to food that they can afford.

  • The hon. Lady points out that the national living wage applies to those over the age of 25, but the national minimum wage applies to people of all ages, including those under 25.

  • Not the higher rate.

  • The hon. Lady is right that it is not that at the same rate as the national living wage, but we have made great progress in recent years in tackling youth unemployment and helping people to get their first job in life. I actually think there is a distinction between those over the age of 25, who have been in work for some time, and those who may be trying their first job.

    Not everybody is in work, and it is often said that late benefit payments or sanctions are a contributing factor in increased food bank use. It is worth noting that even the Trussell Trust’s report suggested that, based on its assessments, sanctions accounted for about 5% to 10% of the increased use of food banks. They do not account for all of it on their own.

    When it comes to late payments, 90% of jobseeker’s allowance claims are now paid on time and within the 10-day limit, while nearly 89% of employment and support allowance claims are also paid within that timeframe, which is considerably better than in 2009-10. Indeed, the timeliness of payments has improved by about 23%. The Government have also responded to concerns over occasions when people have their payments delayed by introducing short-term benefit advances. Those are now being quite actively publicised in jobcentres, and they can be paid to people the very next day.

    It is important to note that the use of sanctions has fallen sharply. Indeed, they are down by half for both JSA and ESA claimants in the year to March 2016. The Government have introduced the concept of mandatory considerations on sanctions so that we can deal with disputes more quickly. The truth is that we need some kind of sanctions in the benefit system for it to be fair and equitable. Staff at my local jobcentre are clear that they use sanctions as only a last resort. Even when they believe sanctions are justified, they have to be cleared by somebody up the line completely unconnected to the case in question. Often, the recommendation that there should be a sanction is not upheld. Huge progress has been made on sanctions. We have responded to some of the points that people have made, and, as I said, their use has halved in recent years.

  • I am listening carefully to what the Minister is saying about sanctions. The head of the National Audit Office recently said that

    “there is more to do in…reducing them further”.

    Does the Minister disagree?

  • I have not seen that particular report, but I make the point to the hon. Lady that the number of sanctions halving in one year is, I believe, a dramatic change to what has gone previously. As I said, I believe that having some sort of sanctions is crucial if we are to have a fair benefits system. We cannot have a fair system if there is no kind of penalty or sanctions for those who do not abide by their obligation to seek work.

    A number of hon. Members mentioned food waste, which is an important issue. There is always going to be some surplus food in any food chain. We have the Waste and Resources Action Programme and the Courtauld commitments, which aim to reduce food waste. WRAP’s research from 2015 showed that 47,000 tonnes of food—the equivalent of 90 million meals—was redistributed to help feed people. In the hierarchy of recycling, making sure that food does not go to waste in the first place, and is used to feed people, is our key aim. I commend and applaud the great work that organisations such as FareShare and FoodCycle do to help unwanted food from places such as supermarkets go towards helping local communities.

    We have had an interesting debate, and again I commend the food banks in our constituencies for all their good work. We have a lot of statistical measures of poverty, and when it comes to the affordability of food, the long-standing metric of household expenditure on food is the most reliable and consistent indicator we have. I am therefore not persuaded at the moment that we need an additional set of questions along the lines that hon. Members have outlined. I take issue with those who say that we have ignored some of these issues. Indeed, huge progress has been made on sanctions, getting people into work, raising wage levels and ensuring that good food is recycled to those who need it.

  • I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. It is always good to hear from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon), who spoke from the Front Bench today.

    It is no surprise that the Minister disagrees with my analysis, but would it not have made a nice, refreshing change if he and his Government had held their hands up and admitted that their experiment with the welfare state has left an enduring and growing scar on this country? Food banks moving on to helping people with housing and all the other issues that have been referred to is yet another example of agencies and charities filling a gap left by his Government. They should not be doing that work—those are the basic tenets of government.

    The nub of the debate is not food prices, as the Minister said. It is the fact that his Government’s policies have led to hunger and poverty on a massive scale and that they are refusing to measure it, despite there having been no national measurement for 10 years. He referred briefly to benefit sanctions and said he was not aware of the NAO report I mentioned. To be clear, 400,000 sanctions were imposed last year, despite there being limited evidence of their being justified, leading to “hardship, hunger and depression”. I suggest he goes and reads that report carefully.

  • It may be that we should exchange notes after the debate, but in the year to March 2016, there were 219,000 JSA sanctions, which was down from 497,000 in the same period in the previous year.

  • The figures I am quoting are from November this year, when the report came out, so perhaps we should share notes.

    It is a real shame that the Minister is out of step with everybody else on this. He is out of step with the cross-party APPG, the cross-party Select Committee, the Food Foundation, Sustain and Oxfam, which have all worked tirelessly on this issue. It is a real shame that he has not got the guts to press his Government to introduce a national measurement of household food insecurity. It would cost only up to £75,000 a year. That is considerably less than his annual salary and a little less than the salaries of most people in this House. I will not detain the House any longer, because I am getting angry, and I am upset.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Resolved,

    That this House has considered household food insecurity measurement in the UK.

  • Sitting suspended.