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Vulnerable People: Food Supplies

Volume 673: debated on Thursday 19 March 2020

4. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to maintain food supplies for vulnerable people in the (a) North East and (b) UK during the covid-19 outbreak. (901643)

The Government are in close contact with representatives of the food supply chain and with local authorities, including those in the north-east, and also with charities, to ensure that those who need to stay at home will have continued access to food. We have well established ways of working with the food industry during disruption and our retailers already have highly resilient supply chains and are working around the clock to ensure that people have the food and other products that they need.

All of us found the images of empty supermarket shelves disturbing, but for those who are vulnerable, aged, unwell, isolated or dependent on food banks, that is causing real fear as to where their next meal is coming from. In the north-east, we have excellent local producers, but much of our food is dependent on supply chains, and I am afraid the Secretary of State’s response will not have given the reassurance required. What specifically is he doing to ensure the supply of food to the supermarket shelves and from the supermarket shelves to people’s homes?

It is very important to note that we have significant resilience in our food supply chain, in that food manufacturers are used to coping with increases in demand, not least every year during Christmas. There is not a shortage of food. The challenge we have had is getting food to shelves in time when people have been purchasing more. That is why we have taken steps including setting aside delivery curfews so lorries can run around the clock, and relaxing driver hours to ensure that deliveries can take place more frequently. We are in discussion with Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government colleagues about other support that we would deliver locally to get food to those who are self-isolating.

I thank the Secretary of State for meeting me and the rest of the shadow DEFRA team this week to discuss concerns about the national crisis and food availability. I urge him to go further on some of the measures he has set out. I hope my questions are seen as being asked in a constructive spirit.

People are worried about how they will feed their family, especially if they are self-isolating, have had their income slashed to statutory sick pay or have lost their job. However, millions are already in food poverty, and this is an immediate family emergency for many of them. With food banks running low on food, and given that many food bank volunteers are over the age of 70 and will soon need to self-isolate, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to assist those in genuine hunger today?

As I have said, we have taken a number of steps to ensure that we can get food to supermarkets. I have been in daily calls with the food supply sector. Those have included discussions about food banks, and we are in dialogue with supermarkets to ensure that they get access to the supplies they need. I welcome the constructive approach that the shadow Secretary of State is taking. We are also working on specific proposals to help the most vulnerable—those with clinical problems—to ensure that we can get food to them should they be self-isolating.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. I think he will need to provide more detail for those who are in genuine hunger today; the hope of detail in the future is not reassuring people at the moment. If I may press him further on supermarkets, we discussed the so-called grey hour, when elderly people can shop before the rest of society goes into the supermarkets. Will he press the Department for Transport to relax the times for free bus pass use to ensure that people can get to the supermarkets? Will he also ensure that every supermarket, not just the Co-op, is still contributing food to food banks and organisations such as FareShare? I suspect that he and his colleagues will want to ensure a private sector-led solution wherever possible, but I press him on this issue, because we will not get through this crisis unless there is Government intervention to support those people and ensure that food supply chains remain open.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that there is a role for the Government. We must take action to set aside any obstacles to making the food supply chain operate in a way that ensures that people have food. On food banks, as I said, we are in discussion with supermarkets. We have also had discussions with them about competition law, and we will take whatever action is necessary to ensure that they can jointly plan their approach to these matters. For the most vulnerable, we are working on proposals that my colleagues in MHCLG will announce shortly.

Getting home deliveries to potentially millions of self-isolating households is a massive logistical exercise. Is it time for the Government to think about further intervention, including, I am afraid, the suspension of competition rules, so retailers and haulage companies can work together to meet this huge national challenge?

My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. That is why earlier this week we had a detailed workshop with both retailers and food processors to identify what they would like to do and what changes to competition law we would need to consider and implement. We are working on that right now.

Telford and Wrekin Council will now have to deliver 5,000 free school meals a day without being able to do so through schools, except for key workers’ children. What more can the Government do, given that many volunteers and people working in charities who might offer to backfill where support is required may be self-isolating or may have been encouraged by the Government to self-isolate? There really is an issue with logistics.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is working on a national volunteer project to co-ordinate the many offers of volunteer help that we have had. In the context of food, we have been working very closely with supermarkets to expand their click-and-collect services to make it easier, where possible, for them to expand their delivery capacity to homes. We continue to work with other groups to identify how we can get food to people at this difficult time.

Care homes and other residential settings that have been let down by their wholesale food suppliers are now being told by supermarkets that they will be treated just like any other consumer. Two chickens do not go a long way if they have 136 residents to feed. Will the Secretary of State urgently look into this issue for all residential settings, please?

I am happy to look at the specific issue that my hon. Friend raised. However, it is also worth noting that while there has been an increase in demand at retail shops, notably in supermarkets, there has been a sharp fall in demand in the service trade, as restaurants, pubs and so forth find that demand for their services has plummeted. Our understanding at the moment is that there are not issues in the food service supply chain, but I am happy to take up any particular case that he might have.

Our supermarket workers have shown themselves to be the heroes of retail, making sure that people get fed and get the food that they need, but there are real concerns about whether they can maintain that service if they are not included in the list of key workers. Of course, many will have children who will need care if the schools cannot accommodate them. Can we have an assurance today that our retail workers will be on the list of key workers?

The Prime Minister made reference yesterday to the importance of those working in the food retail sector, in particular. Later today, the Government will announce jobs defined as key workers, but I can assure him that we fully recognise that over 25% of staff generally working in the food supply chain have children of school age, and that will be reflected when the list is published.