Skip to main content

Food Supply: Covid-19

Volume 683: debated on Thursday 5 November 2020

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the First Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, COVID-19 and food supply, HC 263, and the Government response, HC 841.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Eagle. We launched our inquiry in April after the start of the coronavirus pandemic. It is good to see the Minister and the shadow Minister—the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner)—and also the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne), who is a great member of the Select Committee. We are a very select bunch this afternoon. What we lack in quantity, we make up in quality—there is no doubt about that. As long as we agree on that, things will be absolutely fine.

When lockdown measures to control the virus took effect and began to have a significant impact on the food supply, panic buying took place in supermarkets, and many businesses in the food sector were forced to close. The Committee therefore took evidence from businesses in the food supply chain, food aid organisations, charities, members of the general public, academics, and Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to inform our report.

I want to pay tribute at this stage to those working in the food supply industry, because they kept working through the pandemic—they kept our factories and processing plants going, the drivers got the supplies out, and the farmers produced the food throughout the pandemic. That showed the need to have good home production as well as making sure that imports get in. Although this is not part of the report, I say to the Minister that it is essential that we have a process for getting the lorries and food through our ports and docks as we leave the European Union. I am sure she is well aware of that.

Our report was published on 30 July, just before the summer recess, and we received a Government response on 10 October. Our report was wide-ranging and was intended to help the Government, particularly on how best to react to a second lockdown, which now, unfortunately, has come to pass. Fortunately, we have not seen the same levels of panic buying in supermarkets yet this time around, and we are better prepared to cope with the demand and surges.

I would like to put on record the fact that there never was any real shortage of food in the supermarkets. It is just that, naturally, once people believe they are going to be locked down, the first thing they think is, “Let’s go and stock up on the essentials.” Let us get the clear message out that the food is there and that we do not need to panic buy.

There are, however, several key issues to with food insecurity, which we addressed in our report, and it will continue to be an issue for the Government as a result of covid-19, especially with a further lockdown. One of them is food redistribution. When we launched our report back in the summer, we did so from the FareShare depot in Deptford, in east London. In our report, we praised the Government for the £5 million they provided to FareShare to redistribute food to the most vulnerable, and we asked whether that money could be extended over the next two years. Could the Minister refer to that when she replies to the debate?

As well as helping those who struggle to afford food as the effects of the pandemic continue, redistributing food would also reduce food waste at the farm gates. In my view, it is very much a win-win and a good use of taxpayers’ money and Government money. It buys a lot of good-quality food and delivers it directly to those who most need it.

We also recommended that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs should evaluate the impact of the £63 million it provided to local authorities, assist those struggling to afford food, and consider whether further support is necessary, especially in this new lockdown. The second lockdown has started. Is DEFRA planning to provide any additional funding for the redistribution of food for those who most need it? I know that the Minister is keen for those in the most need to have food. I look forward to what she may have to say.

The Government have recommended that clinically extremely vulnerable people shield again during the current lockdown. It is not clear whether food parcels will be provided through a central scheme led by DEFRA, as they were during the first lockdown. Again, will the Minister confirm whether that will be the case?

During the first wave and the first lockdown, there were a number of issues with delivery slots for online shopping for some vulnerable people, who were unable to get priority booking. I hope, because of all the experience we have had, that that will not happen this time, but we have to be aware that the most vulnerable people who are getting their food online need to get that food. Has DEFRA assessed whether enough online delivery slots are now available, not just for people shielding, but for others who rely on them, such as people with disabilities? We took evidence from people with disabilities who found it quite difficult last time during the lockdown to get food. People advised to shield again are advised not to go to the shops and to shop online. We must ensure that they have support to access the food they need.

I also want to talk a little about free school meals and food vouchers. I know it is not the direct responsibility of the present Minister, but she is the Minister responsible for farming and food. While our report did not make recommendations on whether free school meal vouchers should be available during school holidays, it did look at how the system worked, with vouchers provided to redeem at supermarkets to get foods to the poorest families.

I know from my experience, and from my wife’s during her teaching career, that there is great need to get those vouchers out to vulnerable families. I know this was set up to provide meals while schools were closed, but it was also extended to school holidays. Children in poverty are particularly vulnerable to getting insufficient nutritious food during the school holidays, so I hope the Government are looking at what more can be done for the poorest and most vulnerable children in terms of food access at this time.

I accept that the Government have given more money in universal credit, but the benefit of food vouchers is that they allow people to buy the food directly. The Government would be wise, ahead of the long Christmas holidays, to look again at providing free school meals for children at Christmas, particularly with Marcus Rashford—who is, naturally, very sincere in wanting food to go to children—making a case for it.

In part one of the national food strategy, Henry Dimbleby made a number of recommendations to the Government on food security. As we know, Henry Dimbleby was put there by the previous Secretary of State for DEFRA. The report recommended expanding free school meals for children up to 16 in a household in receipt of universal credit, extending the holiday activities and food programme across the country, and expanding Healthy Start. It would be interesting to hear whether DEFRA and the Minister can say anything about what is happening to that food strategy and that report. Are the Government actively looking at those proposals now?

In our EFRA Committee report, we recommended that the Government consult on whether a right to food should be given a legislative footing. If a person is hungry, the right to food is so important. It takes only one look at me to see that I have probably not been hungry very much lately, but if a person is hungry, that is their main problem in life and it needs to be sorted. Though I make a joke about myself, I take the matter of food security and having enough food very seriously.

We also recommend that a Minister for food security be immediately appointed to deal with these issues. That was a very good part of our report—it had many good parts, but that was a particularly good part. I understand from the Government’s response to our report that Lord Gardiner is actually the Minister responsible for food security, so he might have been here today. I very much respect Lord Gardiner, but I think we actually need a Minister who is almost in the Cabinet if they are to be able to deliver a cross-Cabinet report on food security.

I pay tribute to the Minister for her great work in amending the Agriculture Bill yesterday; it is in a much better state than when it started, although it may need a few more tweaks before we are finished.

Never say never again, Minister, especially in Parliament and in politics. In particular, I am pleased that the Government now have to review food security every three years instead of every five years. However, I think the Agriculture Bill should be much more about food production and food security, as well as about delivering food to everybody—those that can afford it, and those that cannot.

We have an opportunity—it is probably slightly broader than our report—to look at the way we produce healthy food in this country through our agricultural policies, and then deliver that food into the market and to those who most need it. I have always believed that through the new Agriculture Bill, as we move away from the common agricultural policy, we can have more food, healthy food and vegetables—all the things we need in life. Can we not link these things much more? You will probably tell me off, Ms McDonagh, for going a little off the report.

In our EFRA Committee report, we found that the responsibility for food falls across several Government Departments, but there is a risk that food insecurity falls between the cracks, with no clear lead. DEFRA is responsible for food. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has helped to get food parcels out to vulnerable people, the Department for International Trade has a huge impact on our food supply through trade, and the Department for Education is responsible for school meals vouchers. Given the increased challenge of food security in the nation post covid-19, would it not be wise for the Government to ensure that one single Minister draws together policies across Departments, and even in Cabinet? I again emphasise that we need that food—not only what we produce in this country, but imports—to flow freely across the country.

Finally, our report found that the hospitality and food services sectors may take more than a year to recover from forced closures and that further financial difficulties are likely, and that was before this latest lockdown. What assessment has DEFRA made of how this lockdown will affect hospitality and food services businesses and their food and drink suppliers? It is a huge blow to those businesses. We understand why we need a second lockdown, because covid is spreading, and I am not at all against what the Government have had to do, but we have to consider the effect on all those businesses.

When the Government closed businesses back in March, there were huge problems up the supply chain. High-value beef did not have a market in restaurants, and coffee shops closed, which badly affected the milk sector, with many farmers reportedly having to pour milk down the drain. The Government moved to set up a dairy response fund, which was very welcome, and the industry was given more flexibility to take into the retail sector the milk that had been going to the restaurant sector, so the situation improved quite quickly, but we need to be very careful as we go forward. How are the Government going to support food and drink suppliers this time? Restaurants, pubs and bars are now having to close, so that will have an effect.

I am grateful to the Minister for being here today. I have put to her a number of questions from the report and some from me as well. We have today presented what I believe is a well-considered and thoughtful report. It is critical in parts, but it is also helpful to the Government. I look forward to the Government adopting absolutely everything in it.

It is lovely to see a friendly face from Merseyside sitting in the Chair, Ms Eagle. I thank the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). It is a great pleasure and an honour to serve under his chairmanship of the EFRA Committee—it is really enjoyable and one of the highlights of my week up here. I thank him very much for all that he has done to secure the debate and promote what is in the report.

The debate could not have come at a more important time, at the start of a second national lockdown, when access to food is so critical to people’s health and lives. My contribution will focus on the Government’s response to the Committee’s recommendations on food insecurity, and particularly the response to recommendations 9 to 13, which relate to the local authority emergency assistance grant, free school meals vouchers, food parcels for those who are clinically extremely vulnerable and, of course, putting the right to food into UK legislation.

The following point in the report underlines the unfolding disaster of food insecurity happening in all our communities right now:

“Use of food banks was increasing before the pandemic and has effectively doubled during the pandemic. It is likely that the situation will get worse before it gets better.”

Last night we received a report from the Trussell Trust that predicts significant increases in levels of destitution this winter: 670,000 additional people are forecasted to be classed as destitute, meaning that they cannot afford essentials such as housing, energy and food. Of course, that is on top of the millions already suffering food insecurity.

With that in mind, I will start with recommendation 9 of the report, which asks the Government to evaluate the impact of the £63 million provided to local authorities to assist those struggling to afford food, and to consider whether further support is necessary. That funding ran out in October, just ahead of the second lockdown, worryingly. There was rightly an outcry from council leaders when the Prime Minster suggested that they should use the grant, which had already run out, to pay for free school meals over half term. The Government’s own guidance stated that it should not be used to duplicate free school meals vouchers.

In their response to the report, the Government said that they expected the majority of that money to be spent within 12 weeks. They also said that they would evaluate its impact, so I hope the Minister can now commit to the grant being extended, as the Trussell Trust and many other reputable food organisations have called for. The Trussell Trust’s forecast for this winter is indeed shocking. It estimates a 61% increase in need compared with last winter, which is equivalent to an additional 300,000 emergency food parcels.

I know from first hand that the grant has had such a good impact in Liverpool. It has been an absolute lifeline. As a councillor in Everton, I have often used the local welfare assistance funds to target people in need. Local authorities can ensure that it makes a real difference to individuals. I pay tribute to Liverpool City Council, Mayor Joe Anderson, Councillor Jane Corbett and officers such as Martin Jungnitz, who, despite austerity cuts, are championing this scheme, having kept it afloat and allocated £18 million. Unfortunately, the money has run out, so I will ask again: can the emergency assistance grant for food and essential supplies be urgently extended over the winter to support councils in their efforts to ensure that nobody goes hungry?

Recommendations 11 and 12 made it clear how important free school meals vouchers are, noting that the number of children dependent on them is likely to go up significantly as people shift into the benefits system. In their response, the Government claimed that they had:

“taken unprecedented and substantial action to ensure that no child should go hungry as we take measures to tackle coronavirus, including in relation to free school meals.”

That simply does not reflect reality. The Government have not ensured that no child will go hungry—hence there are over a million signatures on Marcus Rashford’s petition on the matter. Just two weeks ago the Government voted down a motion to provide free school meals to children over the winter holidays, and the public have made clear their opinion on this shocking decision. I ask the Government to listen to Marcus Rashford, and to the other agencies, and provide free school meals over Christmas and the holidays that follow. It is their moral duty. Over 4,000 children in my constituency of Liverpool, West Derby who rely on free school meals are now at risk of going hungry, in the middle of winter and in the middle of a pandemic, as a direct result of this refusal to extend the scheme.

Recommendation 12 deals with food parcels for the clinically extremely vulnerable. The report made recommendations about the distribution of these food parcels during the first lockdown. There were some extremely concerning findings, such as the feedback that the food parcels did not meet those individuals’ dietary needs, or that they actually put their health at risk. The independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has stated that a small but significant proportion of people had been waiting longer than a month for their first food parcel. I know from first hand the issues faced by many of the people advised to shield, because I work alongside the two co-founders of Fans Supporting Foodbanks, and they are both in that category. They and many thousands across the country will once again be revisiting those fears. We discussed it yesterday on the phone, and they really are both fearful.

The Government’s response to that recommendation is not good enough. It does not address in any detail what they are going to do to ensure that delays in food parcels to the clinically extremely vulnerable do not happen again. It does not recognise the realities that people are living through. Our report stated that if the Government repeat such an endeavour in future, such as during a second wave of covid-19, they should make greater efforts to ensure that nutrition and dietary needs are given a higher priority from the start. Now that day has come, as the second lockdown starts today. Will the Government urgently set out in detail how they will ensure that the dietary needs of the clinically extremely vulnerable are met in the days and weeks to come?

I turn to recommendation 13. I thank the Minister for once again listening to my arguments, and for her interest in this subject and in the community projects in Liverpool, which I spoke to her about. She showed great interest and it really was appreciated. I look forward to updating her in the coming months. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), who has been and continues to be a great champion on the subject of food insecurity, and who offers wise counsel when it is needed.

The EFRA Committee recommended that the Government should consult on whether a right to food should be placed on a legislative footing to ensure that they have a reference point for action to tackle and measure food insecurity. It is the Government’s moral duty, regardless of which political party is in office, to ensure that nobody in the country goes hungry. That was echoed last week by Henry Dimbleby, the Government’s adviser on the national food strategy. It should be a legal duty on the Government and a legal right, and it should be taken out of the hands of political decision makers.

Putting a right to food into legislation would oblige the Government of the day to ensure that people never face food insecurity, and issues such as the five-week universal credit delay and the refusal to provide free school meals would be subject to legal challenge. Enshrining a right to food in law would make clear the Government’s obligations, create mechanisms to set positive targets and monitor progress, and introduce avenues to hold Government bodies to account for violations. The events of this year demonstrate that we need that legislation in place now more than ever.

The Government cannot let the disaster of food insecurity continue to unfold, and stand by while so many of our citizens, including my constituents, are at risk of hunger and have to deal with its devastating impact on their health, wellbeing and livelihoods. I urge them to look at the Committee’s report and take urgent steps now to ensure that nobody goes hungry during the second lockdown.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Eagle, albeit very briefly. I am sure it will be a pleasure to serve under Ms McVey’s chairmanship too.

[Esther McVey in the Chair]

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne), who speaks with great passion and knowledge. The shadow DEFRA team appreciates all the work and effort he puts in. It is also a huge pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). I thought he rather undersold his Committee’s report.

It is not only timely but extremely important. I am possibly somewhat biased. I came to this role somewhat unexpectedly just after Christmas, and although I had done rural policy many years ago, it was not recent. No one at that time imagined that we would be going into the kind of year that we have had so far and, sadly, it looks like we will continue to have.

One of the consequences of that was that I and the shadow team quickly found ourselves in the unusual position of having a dialogue with many of the people who came to give evidence to the Select Committee, in some cases on a weekly basis. On behalf of the shadow DEFRA team, I want to thank Ministers for the access that they gave us at the time—it felt like the door had been cracked open slightly. We are beginning to see just a little of how Government operate. I have to say that we did not get to see very much, but sometimes in those conversations we began to get a sense of how Government work, or maybe do not work—I will make one or two observations on that—and it was appreciated.

It also meant that, from the conversations I had regularly with some people, particularly those who gave evidence, I recognised in the Committee reports what had been going on for many months. I was a shadow Transport Minister in a previous Parliament, and nobody ever explains to you how to do things in this place. Having been on a Select Committee, I realise how much hugely important information is derived from Select Committees. I suspect that the right way to do it is to be on the Select Committee first and then to be a shadow Minister, but it does not always work like that.

Sadly, we come here today at the start of a second national lockdown. Almost the first thing to do is to pay tribute to all the people in the food production system, from farm right the way through to shop, right across the food sector, including charities and all workers in the supply chain. It must be said that in those early conversations there were genuine anxieties and concerns about the supply chain, because it was not clear that it would survive. In the beginning, we did not know how many of the workers would fall prey to covid. It is fair to say that we were fortunate that it did not spread through the workforce in the way that some of us had feared, but that was not guaranteed, and we saw the issues in the shops. It was difficult in a trying period. It was a good example in this place of people working together to make sure that we kept things going.

The report quite rightly asks a series of detailed questions. Any Government faced with that kind of crisis will not get it all right, so I hope that my criticisms, as they are, will be taken in a constructive spirit, because anyone would have struggled with it. There were some important lessons. The first goes back to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool West Derby. Frankly, there is a level of food poverty and insecurity in this country that was already there, and a light has been shone on that to some extent. It is sometimes hard for people in this place to understand what other people’s lives are like. That is a general comment. I look across the Atlantic and I cannot believe that 67 million people have done what they have done—hopefully, 70 million have done the right thing, in my view. The sad truth of the report is that too many people in this country are already in a poor position.

We have already seen a huge rise in food bank use, which is a dilemma for all of us. Whenever I go to my food bank, I always say, “I want to get rid of you.” I am sure that others say the same. We do not want food banks. We should not have food banks in the 21st century, but they have a vital role. The next thing I say is, “Thank you,” because it absolutely needs to be done. The worry is that during this crisis, unsurprisingly, usage has shot up. There were particular challenges for food banks, not least because many of their volunteers were in exactly the age group that needed to shield. It was a difficult period for them. The number of people who came forward to help at that point was encouraging, certainly in my city. I heard that from others too, and it was helped by the fact that they were not necessarily doing other things. As the city unlocked, it meant that there was a transition back again. None of it is easy.

The most recent data from the Food Foundation shows that 14% of adults living with children have now reported experiencing food insecurity in the last six months. That is a trite phrase: “experiencing food insecurity.” What does it mean? It means that they do not have any food. That is an almost unthinkable situation for many of us in this country in the 21st century. A total of 4 million people, including 2.3 million children, are having to make really difficult decisions about what they eat, and then make difficult decisions about nutritional content because they cannot afford to access food.

Some 10% of adults living with children reported that food insecurity has affected their children, forcing them to rely on only a few kinds of low-cost food and possibly unbalanced meals—I am afraid that we have seen cases of people skipping meals altogether. It is only day one of the second lockdown, but I fear that we will see similar issues arising again, and somehow it all seems that much more difficult in winter than in spring, particularly with some of the religious festivals approaching.

This is an issue not just of food supply, but of insufficient income and social support. Labour has repeatedly urged the Government to ensure that the welfare safety net is fit to handle the crisis. Those simple measures that we have proposed include scrapping the five-week wait for universal credit, suspending the benefits cap and updating legacy benefits so that they match the increase in universal credit.

We are not here to re-rehearse those arguments, but it is important that they are put on record, and I think it is pretty incredible, in the face of where we are now, that the £20 per week increase in universal credit is still not guaranteed. I know it is not within the Minister’s gift to make a promise on that today, but I am sure that message will go back strongly. It is quite clear that the £63 million that was put in place, which my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby mentioned, was there for a particular time and a particular purpose. We will need it again, so I echo his questions: what is going to be in place, when, and can we get some guarantees on that quickly?

When the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton mentioned part one of the national food strategy, he said that Henry Dimbleby had been appointed by the previous Secretary of State—the hon. Gentleman is losing count of Secretaries of State, because by my reckoning it was the previous but one. However, it is an important report and the huge petition that has been running recently picks up those recommendations. We appreciate that they are quite significant and that they are expensive, but the Opposition also recognise that they are what the public are looking to achieve, and I urge the Government to look at them closely. At the start of the pandemic, Labour called for an emergency coronavirus food plan to ensure that everyone in the country has access to nutritious food. I urge the Government to lay out, if not today then very soon, how they plan to meet those kinds of objectives in the period ahead.

The report makes it clear that the Government have made some mistakes. The national free school meals voucher scheme was a particularly trying period. As I think the Chair of the Select Committee pointed out, the Minister is not directly responsible for each Government Department, but she does have an overall co-ordinating role, so it is entirely right and proper that we criticise the scheme that was run by Edenred. I am afraid every MP across the House probably had examples in their constituencies; I certainly did in mine. It was a nightmare, frankly, for teachers doing their best to ensure that children were fed. Again, let me be generous to the Government and say that it is not easy to set up a scheme very quickly, but there were some fundamental problems with it, particularly with the online portal. It was very tough on parents who were facing considerable difficulties accessing it, so it really did not seem to work.

One of the biggest problems was the failure to come up with a scheme that gave those vouchers to shops where people live and shop. I could not believe that the Co-op, which is such a fundamental part of so many communities, particularly in cities such as mine, was left out. Of course people can get to the big shops—the people who do not need vouchers; the people who needed the vouchers were much closer to the shops that did not have them. The Minister is acknowledging the problem, but it did go on for a very long time, despite detailed questioning and pressing. I know the Co-op was in near despair, speaking to us very regularly, and my shadow DEFRA colleagues and I kept raising that with the Secretary of State.

Schools needing to source alternative food voucher schemes from this one were also left in confusion about the costs that they were able to bear and the effect that might have on schools that had a financial surplus. We do not want schools to be completely running down their reserves all the time. There was a whole series of things that could have been done better, and the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton’s report highlights them very effectively. The Committee is absolutely right to say that children in poverty are particularly vulnerable to experiencing insufficient nutritious food during the school holidays.

Given the significant impact on people’s incomes, it is extraordinary that we have had this series of crises. A feature of the Government’s response is that they do not seem to spot very obvious things coming down the road. I can, probably fairly accurately, predict that the Christmas holidays will come along in a few weeks. Without being unkind, I think it might be sensible for the Government to acknowledge that it will happen again and again, and they might as well get things sorted out in advance.

Of course, Marcus Rashford is always cited, and he has done a fantastic job, but it should not have taken him to resolve this issue; the Government should have seen it coming. The Government will be judged on how they respond to this. I hope that they will not fall into the same trap again. Certainly, Labour’s view is very clear that free school meals should be extended.

Alongside children are those people who are clinically extremely vulnerable. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby made some important points about some of the early food parcels. Again, let me be generous and say that it was hard to organise them quickly, but it was clear that particularly some of the early parcels were quite inappropriate for many people. If, as I hope we do not, we get to a situation where we need to do that again, I hope that lessons have been learned.

I wholeheartedly echo the Committee’s conclusion that going back to the pre-pandemic normal will not be good enough. That is why we look forward to Henry Dimbleby’s work continuing and a national food strategy emerging. This has been a long-running campaign, and I pay tribute to some of my colleagues, particularly— I cannot remember her constituency, but I think hon. Members will know who I mean. She has done a lot of work arguing for food poverty to be tackled better.

I also hope that the Government will listen on food security. We had this discussion on the Agriculture Bill. There are two types of food security, of course: individual food security, which I have been referring to, and food chain security. Although we had that debate and the Government conceded to move from five years to three, given the situation that we may we find ourselves in fairly soon we may have to address that on a more regular basis.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his response to our report. What we found in looking into the food chain was that it worked, but it is very much a just-in-time food chain. Especially with fresh fruit and vegetables, and especially in the winter, we need to ensure that we can get those imports in. As much as I want to produce everything in this country if we can, at certain times of the year we will import a lot of salad, vegetables and fruit especially.

The Chair of the Select Committee is right. I will come on to the very pressing fresh food issues that we face, but I agree we need to ensure that that works.

I will touch briefly on the right to food, which my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby mentioned, and which featured in Labour’s manifesto last year. I am pleased that the Committee is recommending that that be looked at. It is a complicated issue, because is not quite as obvious as it might seem in just a few words, but it encompasses a range of issues around income security and how we judge what is appropriate in a modern, civilised society. I suspect that that will come in time.

The report mentions how our food is produced. This was a remarkable achievement by everyone involved in the food chain, from farmers right the way through to food processors, but one thing that the report could have touched on a bit more, and that the Government need to look at much more, is how we hear the voices of the people involved in the food processing sector. I have been struck by the lack of transparency. It is a hidden workforce to some extent, and of course it is not always a UK workforce.

That workforce is a key part of how we will ensure that food gets on our shelves and to our people. However, at the moment, we are seeing week by week more incidents of sickness—in East Anglia, my part of the world, we have had some very difficult outbreaks—in some of those factories. The bit that is missing from the analysis is the voice of those workers. I am disappointed that more evidence was not taken from trade unions and particularly some of the national officers. I know that the Government are not necessarily particularly keen on all trade unions, but my work and conversations with national officers show that they have a huge wealth of knowledge, and the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), and I have been pressing the Government to make more use of that knowledge. I think we all know that if we go to any trade organisation or any major organisation, we will hear a whole series of things about what they would like to be the case. When we talk to the people who are actually doing the work, we very frequently get a rather different account, and it is the lack of that account that is contributing in some cases to the problems that we are seeing.

At the beginning, there were problems about ensuring that there was adequate statutory guidance. There were problems with personal protective equipment. There were problems about social distancing. We hope that that is now sorted, because there has been plenty of time to get the information in place, but there are good employers and less good employers. We want to ensure that the practice of the good employers is spread widely, and there is a real opportunity to do that. I would suggest to the Minister that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs might look at commissioning some research on whether there is any link between the work practices and the spread of the disease, because there is a worry about that, which I hear.

There is also, of course, the issue of proper sick pay, because without that people cannot afford to isolate. Even if we get the testing system sorted out, if people are not isolating, it will not work, and if they cannot isolate because the statutory sick pay is too low or they are not getting it properly, we will be able to see exactly why the problem has got worse.

Back in July, the shadow Secretary of State did write to the Secretary of State, urging the Government to follow what we think is the good example of risk assessments being carried out in Wales. I would encourage the Minister to look at that.

We are hearing from our trade union colleagues that they do think that there is a problem, not least because in some cases people are working on agency contracts, which moves them from factory to factory. That has been, I think, addressed in care homes, but I do not think it has been addressed in the food processing sector, and that is in all our interests, frankly. Obviously, we need to get on top of the virus, but if there are people who are putting themselves at risk, that puts others at risk, too.

Some research was done by an organisation called PIRC—Pensions & Investment Research Consultants—which I think did a desk job of looking at some of these things. It found that the number of covid-19 cases at food factories could actually be 30 times higher than those being reported to the Health and Safety Executive. I have been pressing the Department of Health and Social Care with a number of questions on this, but frankly, we have not been getting very good answers, so I think that there is more work to be done, and it would be to everybody’s benefit.

We have of course been supportive of the lockdown measures, but I do think that, right at the beginning, more could have been done to anticipate some of the problems that arose from the closure of the hospitality and food service sector. Again, this is not an easy thing to do. At the beginning, there was criticism, including from the National Farmers Union, of the Government for being too slow in responding to the problems in the dairy sector. It is not an easy thing to shift so much product from one area to another. And on the financial support scheme—the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton mentioned this—there is a sense that by the time that the scheme was finally in place, the complexity of it and the eligibility criteria meant that probably not that many people benefited from it, so I hope that that can be looked at again.

I have raised this point informally with the Minister. At the beginning, there were, rightly, measures to relax some of the competition laws, to allow co-operation, particularly in the dairy sector, that would not normally be allowed. I spoke to Dairy UK at the time, and it was very disappointed that one of the statutory instruments was not actually brought before the House for discussion. It said to me that it would have been extremely useful for some of the points to be clarified. As a consequence, the first measure did not really work and a second one had to be laid. I will just make the point. Ministers say of the CRaG—Constitutional Reform and Governance Act—process, for instance, that we can absolutely rely on it. But what happened when we came to try to use this procedure? I spent a lot of time and effort on this. I got the Leader of the Opposition to lay an early-day motion, pray and all the rest of it. When we came to try to use this procedure, what happened? It was earlier than July. The measures have come and gone. They will probably have to be introduced again and we will still not have had any opportunity to query them or, as would be in the Government’s interest, to clarify them. The competition laws are very tight and many producers are nervous about discussions because they have been stung before and ended up with big bills. It is in everybody’s interest. I say gently that we need to make that work better.

It is difficult when the public is worried about supplies, so one has to be careful about one’s use of language. I understand why the Secretary of State was careful. But we asked for a proper, national public advertising campaign at the beginning. That did not seem to be done quickly enough. The Government’s communication messages need to be refined.

We felt that leaving frontline retail staff to deal with some of the issues they faced was rather unfair. We have seen continuing incidents of violence against shopworkers, up 9% this year compared to last year. In response to the report, the Government said they will take lessons from the first lockdown, to deliver better aligned and joined-up communications. I ask the Minister, what communications will they be making to reassure the public that they do not need to stockpile?

I will conclude on a subject, Ms McVey, on which you and I will not agree, namely, the future relationship with the European Union. Looking at what is coming down the line in a few weeks, I would echo the comments of the Chair of the Select Committee. Some have thought that it will be fine, because we got through covid-19 with the food supply chain. I think it is exactly the other way around, I am afraid. I would not say we were lucky—people worked very hard—but it was close. When I see all the things exporters and importers will have to do over the next few weeks, it is eyewatering. I am hearing that it is very difficult. However much communication the Government do, it will not be solved.

Everyone is on tenterhooks as we come to the end of the transition period. We will need some urgent planning to get us through all of it. There are some fundamental differences between the approach this Government have taken and the approach of a Labour Government. I do not think we would have relied so much on the private sector to provide solutions. The school meals fiasco showed why that did not work.

As we face a second wave of the pandemic and the second lockdown, I ask the Government to up their game in ensuring people have access to nutritional food, and particularly that food businesses and retailers get good, sound advice, so that the buck is not passed on to them to take responsibility. Finally, we must give all the support we can to the farmers, food producers, delivery drivers, factory engineers and all the other people. It is a just-in-time system, and we do not have much time to secure it before we face the problems of the epidemic and some of our own making.

It is a great pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I thank all those who have worked so hard to keep the nation fed throughout this difficult year. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and his Committee for the work they have done on this excellent report. I also thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne), with whom I have discussed food security and insecurity before. I know he works very hard and is very knowledgeable in this sphere. I thank the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), who I know will also continue to work with us on these difficult issues.

I will start with the Government’s preparations for the new restrictions that have come into place today. On Monday, the national shielding service system was switched on, allowing clinically extremely vulnerable individuals to register their need for support. That should get them a supermarket delivery slot within seven days as a maximum—so, with any luck, before that. I have done the website click-through myself. The system is simple to use, and it can be done on behalf of an older person or someone who cannot access technology.

If that does not work for anyone or for anyone’s constituents, please get in touch with one of the charities that I shall list later, or local authorities, which are able to provide direct access to online delivery slots. Having said that, there is good supply of online delivery slots at the moment, commercially. I keep checking that as well, and slots are available today, or they were when I checked earlier.

Today, too, there was further good news from the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the coronavirus job retention scheme. That is worth checking, but I do not intend to go into any detail, because we have enough to do to go through the recommendations in this extensive report in order, which I will now do.

We welcome recommendations 1, 2 and 3. We have been in daily contact with retailers throughout the pandemic. They told us what was happening abroad before it started here. We in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—given that we supply a lot of food abroad, not least at the smarter end of the fisheries sector—were very aware of what was happening on the continent of Europe before the pandemic got bad here. We knew that the strains on demand experienced in March and April were inevitable as the numbers went up, but the supply chain response demonstrated real resilience.

The point made by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) was that when we had the previous epidemic, our imports and exports were all under single market regulations. Is the Minister absolutely certain that DEFRA and the Government are ready for the hauliers to be able to import and export food without delay? She mentioned fish, which got me to rise to my feet immediately, because fish by its very nature is perishable. We have to have the right certificates and enough people to issue them. We cannot delay the hauliers, so I seek that reassurance for the record, please.

Yes. I am happy to go into immense detail with my hon. Friend, possibly not in this debate because, frankly, that is the subject of several hours of discussion in itself. I am absolutely certain that we are working very hard, that we have prepared for a no-deal scenario—as the Department has done several times already, and which we still hope will not be the case—and that we have daily meetings about the plans for 1 January.

I am not prepared to say, and would never say, that there will not be bumps along the way in the next few months. I am sure that there will be, and of course the pandemic is not helping the situation. I had a useful meeting with local authority leaders this morning, who are working on this very issue. I am also acutely conscious that the same workforce is dealing with the issues of both the pandemic and the end of the transition period. I will not say that there will be no bumps; I will say that we are as prepared as we possibly can be, but that it is challenging.

To go back to today’s lockdown, supermarkets have seen a clear uplift in sales because of the lockdown and in anticipation of it. We are monitoring the situation closely, and supermarkets say that they are confident of managing availability by using existing stocks and working with their suppliers. Evidence shows—I say this politely to the hon. Member for Cambridge—that messaging to consumers to highlight the resilience of the food supply comes best from supermarkets and those in the retail supply chain. I am prepared to accept that evidence.

It is also clear that as soon as the words beginning with “p” and “b” are mentioned in the media—I will not even say the words, and this is why we never talk about them—people act in a way that is not necessary, buying things that they do not need. We have a swear box in the office for those words. To reassure hon. Members, food supply is holding up very well. There are products on the shelves and nobody needs to buy anything they do not need to eat in the normal course of events.

On recommendation 4, exclusion orders are intended to be used in exceptional circumstances only. The Competition Act 1998 (Groceries) (Coronavirus) (Public Policy Exclusion) Order 2020, which provided a specific and temporary relaxation of elements of UK competition law, was very effective. We should give active consideration to whether it is needed again, and we are doing so. I accept what the hon. Member for Cambridge said about law generally being better scrutinised. When the House was sitting virtually, however, we did not have a virtual way to undertake scrutiny of statutory instruments, and that remains the case. I know that consideration is being given to that, but not everything is perfect in the course of a global pandemic. It was definitely worth introducing that exemption, and I am pleased that we did so.

We agree with recommendations 5 and 6. Click and collect boomed, and retailers worked really hard to increase availability. There were enormous increases in online delivery supply. Tesco is just one example, but other supermarkets are available. The number of its delivery slots went from 660,000—at that point, delivery was not a huge part of Tesco’s business—to 1.5 million, which is an immense job. Many other supermarkets increased their deliveries, too.

There was also a lot of really hard work locally. The hon. Member for Cambridge mentioned the Co-op, which did enormous work in my constituency just to do local deliveries to old people who had rung up. A volunteer or shop staff member would then drop off the shopping. An immense amount of work went into all that. The temporary relaxation of drivers’ hours rules also really helped—that was another win—and DEFRA waived the 5p carrier bag charge for online orders, which helped minimise contact between drivers and customers. That was another useful learning point.

On recommendation 7, we spent a considerable amount of time on the food and essential supplies to the vulnerable taskforce, which I was privileged to chair, targeting this specific group. Personally, I always refer to the vulnerable instead of putting people into different categories. We work closely with retailers, local authorities and charities to help them make connections and put in place a whole range of services for people who need them. They are still available. We have our own delivery slots, which are obviously provided by retailers but which local authorities and national charities, including the Royal National Institute of Blind People, Age UK and Scope, can access directly. Some 81% of local authorities can now do direct referrals for supermarket slots, and I thank the team who worked for our taskforce. They did all this very difficult work amazingly quickly. They built computer systems to help deliver it and worked with local authorities to ensure that the supplies and food delivery slots were there for those who needed them.

Recommendations 8 to 11, and probably a few others, focus on food security. In the first weeks of the pandemic, the taskforce’s focus was on ensuring that food got to people who were finding it physically difficult to access it because they were locked down in their houses. However, it became very clear—indeed, this was not a surprise to anyone—that there was a growing and substantial problem with economic access to food. We got a great deal of evidence from those who work on the frontline, and we continue to do so. It is very much a priority of our work going forward.

Food poverty is, of course, a part of wider poverty and is usually dealt with by the welfare system. The Government have put in place a great deal more welfare measures than have been available in the past, with £9 billion extra this financial year, benefiting 16 million extra households. It is important to remember that not everyone in food poverty has children. Indeed, the granular evidence we received daily from those who work on the frontline shows that probably about half of those in food poverty have children. Many of them are single people—they are not necessarily older—living on their own. When we have this discussion, it is important to recognise the different sorts of families.

We are having a thoughtful conversation. It is interesting to hear the Minister say that probably less than half of those receiving benefits have children. Is there an argument that food should be targeted with vouchers, so that it gets to families with children? If the benefit is available to everyone, which is a good thing, those with children are not necessarily targeted. School vouchers target them and make sure that vulnerable children get food.

This is a difficult and delicate area, but the point I am trying to make is that we need to address the needs of all those who are in food poverty. Obviously, children are particularly important but so are adults. If, sadly, we need to get welfare systems up and running later in the pandemic and to address the economic problems that might follow it, we will need to ensure that a holistic approach is taken to all those in food poverty. I will come to more detail in a moment. In terms of the welfare net, universal credit has been increased by £20 a week, and increases to local housing allowance rates have also been helpful to families. We also continue to spend over £95 billion a year on working-age benefits.

In the last few weeks I have had useful conversations with the Trussell Trust and the Children’s Society about the targeted support for which DEFRA made a bid in May and which local authorities dispersed. Some £63 million-worth of food and essential supplies was distributed to the people who local authorities knew were in most need, about half of whom have children. The Trussell Trust and the Children’s Society say that that money was helpful and very well spent. It is being assessed at the moment, not least by those two organisations and other frontline deliverers that communicate regularly with DEFRA.

In May, £16 million was provided directly by Government to food charities, such as FareShare. That was an unusual step for Government to take. Some of that £16 million went directly to the Waste and Resources Action Programme, as none of us likes to see good food go to waste. There is other funding available to WRAP, which is doing excellent work.

In respect of today’s lockdown, for which the hospitality sector did not, given the nature of the disease, have long to prepare—restaurants, for example, still have food that they had ordered—WRAP has today been sharing knowledge, at very short notice, on increasing redistribution. If businesses with multiple pallets of surplus food cannot find a recipient, they should contact WRAP, which will help facilitate connections with people who need it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) was a key part of my taskforce. We work closely together on the issue of children who access free school meals during term time. We know very well that Christmas is coming and we understand that there will be winter pressures. I am not able to make any announcements today, but I am confident that the right work is being done to prepare for winter.

I do not expect the Minister to make an announcement late on a Thursday afternoon, but if local authorities are going to be in a position to help, they need to get funding fairly soon. May I also say that the Member I was referring to earlier was my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck)?

On recommendation 12, food boxes contained a basic selection of food and other essential items for those who were unable to leave home. They were a standardised package, designed to be suitable for the majority of people. They had been reviewed by a nutritionist. I know there were complaints, but I am very proud of the fact that 4.5 million boxes were delivered at short notice to people who needed them. It was not a long-term solution—a box of ingredients delivered by the Government is not how we want people to be able to feed themselves in the long term.  We are not planning currently to do it again for this lockdown because we have online delivery slots, the volunteer network—the GoodSAM volunteers who are prepared to go and shop for anybody—and the excellent local authority systems. We therefore think we have a good and robust system in place to deal with those who are shielding now. The message for those experiencing difficulties is: please do get in touch with the local authority.

On recommendations 13, 14 and 24, we remain committed to publishing a White Paper within six months of the publication of Henry Dimbleby’s national food strategy, which we still expect next spring.

I think I am right to say we have been expecting the food report for a very long time. Although I welcome it coming in the spring, I thought it was due here before Christmas. The seasons seem to be getting prolonged.

I think my hon. Friend is being rather impatient. He had the first part of the report in July, to which the Government are actively considering their response, and he will get the rest of it next year. Henry Dimbleby is in charge, and the Government will respond within six months of the final report. The report is a large piece of work, which was commissioned to help inform our food strategy and will include proper consideration of measures needed to tackle food insecurity. On the other report that we have promised to provide, the Agriculture Bill commits us to providing a food security report at least every three years. My hon. Friend and I discussed that matter at length in the Chamber and we came up with a sensible solution.

On recommendation 15, the work of the cross-Government taskforce was very valuable. I do see the value in working across Government. This matter continues to be under live consideration. I meet or communicate regularly on food issues with the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), the Minister for Housing, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher), the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) and the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill). Whether or not we are a formal group meeting in person at the moment, we are very much in touch on these issues.

I turn to the food service sector and recommendation 16. We know how the closure of the hospitality and food service had a huge impact across the food supply chain. That was inevitable. That is why the Government stood up enormously our existing stakeholder forums with industry and developed new forums to facilitate close collaboration and know exactly what was going on. In DEFRA, we helped with specific funds for those sectors that were particularly struggling, such as dairy and fish. Of course, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor introduced a wide-ranging package of measures available to businesses generally and across the food supply chain, including the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme, which helped many businesses, and continues to do so, across the UK; the bounce back loan scheme, which has also been popular in the food sector; and the coronavirus job retention scheme, which provides for payments to be made from the Treasury to employers.

I turn to key workers in the food sector and recommendations 19 and 20. We are very grateful to all those whom we started to call food heroes during the course of the pandemic: people like Geoff Norris, the Asda delivery driver who shopped and delivered food to vulnerable customers in his own time to ensure that they had food, and Sharon McKendrick, the Morrisons store manager in Berwick who set up a food ordering phone line for local vulnerable people in her community as well as personally delivering a lot of it. There are many, many more. We have been able to honour some of them in various ways, but I would like to thank all of them—they know who they are.

In the evidence the Select Committee took, it was extremely comforting to see the link between industry and trade unions. We saw the benefits of talking to each other to get each other through this, using the expertise of the trade unions and industry. It was fantastic. One of the most heart-warming things was the link between them, not seeing each other as enemies but working collaboratively to get the nation through. Once we get past covid, hopefully we can build on those relationships and that collaboration. As we have touched on, we have many issues with sick pay and conditions, but the value of the workforce has now been seen by the entire country, and the Minister is right: they are heroes.

I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman, which brings us nicely to processing plants and recommendation 21. The hon. Member for Cambridge made important points about an unheard workforce. The issue is obviously a real and pressing concern. We are working closely with Public Health England, the Health and Safety Executive, the joint biosecurity centre, the Department of Health and Social Care, and, of course, the Food Standards Agency. It is a very active problem for all of us in DEFRA at the moment. Anything that the hon. Gentleman hears can be passed on to me. I also work closely with Health Ministers. Our current understanding is that outbreaks are probably linked to a combination of working conditions, working culture, living conditions and shared transport. We are also working with our devolved Administration colleagues to seek consistency of approach across the UK. Statutory sick pay is just one part of our wider offer to support people. During this challenging period, we are taking every opportunity to ensure that people are supported to do the right thing and stay at home where necessary.

On recommendation 22, we anticipated many things in Government, but not the coronavirus. As recognised by the Committee, we muddled through in the food sector and adapted as best we could, but of course there are lessons to learn.

On recommendation 25, we are not complacent. We know we have a highly resilient food supply chain and a food industry that is experienced in dealing with disruption, but there is a great deal more to do. We have extensive engagement with industry, which includes very regular—sometimes daily, sometimes twice weekly—meetings with industry and in particular the food resilience industry forum, which meets twice weekly at the moment. We will build on that approach as we plan for the end of the transition period, on which work is very much going on with 56 days to go.

Through engagement with industry for EU exit planning and, of course, the pandemic response, we have significantly improved our knowledge of the supply chain this year, but we will continue to adapt and, I hope, manage the nation’s food supply as best we can. I am quietly quite proud of what the team has managed to do this year. I sincerely thank everyone who has worked so hard to feed the nation during the pandemic—from farmers, to those involved in the food supply chain—and I thank the team in DEFRA. It has not been perfect, but I think it has been okay and we have managed it. We have had a good debate. I welcome the report and look forward to working further with all of the hon. Members present on this very important topic.

It is a pleasure to sum up this debate. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), speaking on behalf of the Opposition, has looked at the report and embraced it, He has criticised the Government, but in a constructive way. The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) is a very constructive member of the Select Committee. He mentioned the 4,000 children in his constituency who need food because they are hungry. That point is relevant to us all. I thank the Minister, who has a genuine understanding of the need to supply food to everybody.

We are learning all the time. That is the point of the report. A great strength of Select Committees is that we have the chance to look at issues in great detail. I thank Xameerah Malik, our senior Clerk, who wrote and put together much of this excellent report, along with other members of the team. I would like that to go on the record.

The hon. Member for Cambridge talked about the food processing sector and the Minister summed it up well. It is not just about what happens in the factory; it is also about travel and the way people actually live and where.

Lots of languages are spoken on many of these sites. We visited some in the midlands and other places where that created a challenge in ensuring that people knew what they should be doing on food safety and other issues. I think there is probably more work to be done there with the industry.

The issue of having enough food is not just about the covid outbreak, although that has put huge pressure on it. Once we are out of covid—let us pray that one day we will have a vaccine and be able to move forward in our normal way—there will, unfortunately, be pressure on the economy, more people will be without jobs, and the most vulnerable will be in greater need of food.

I thank the Minister for the detailed way in which she went through the report and our recommendations. I suppose one benefit of not having many Members present for a debate is that both the shadow Minister and the Minister have enough time to sum up. My friend the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby also had enough time to make his points, and I have probably spoken more than at length.

We feel very strongly about this issue. Despite our differences—naturally, this is a political issue as well— today has shown that we can co-operate and work together. At the end of the day, the onus is on all of us, whatever our political party, to deliver food to those who most need it.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the First Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, COVID-19 and food supply, HC 263, and the Government response, HC 841.

Sitting adjourned.