Wednesday 15 December 2021
[Clive Efford in the Chair]
National Food Strategy and Public Health
Before we begin, I remind hon. Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in a debate. This is in line with Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week, if coming on to the parliamentary estate. That can be done either at the testing centre in the House, or at home. Please give one another and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the National Food Strategy and public health.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I am delighted to have secured this debate on such a vital topic. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the national food strategy, I have been examining closely the key themes that we need to address to produce a lasting, holistic solution to food system failures. As the Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent Central, I see the impact that food poverty has on health, education and life chances. Developing long-term solutions to level up our access to healthy food, whether that be through tackling affordability or raising the standards of school food, is as vital to creating a fairer society as investment in major infrastructure projects.
In 2019, the Government recognised the need for a new approach and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs commissioned a review of the food system by Henry Dimbleby to inform a new national food strategy. In 2020, the Government published their obesity strategy, which recognises that tackling obesity and improving our nation’s diet require a partnership between consumer and producer. A comprehensive national food strategy will be a positive and universally welcomed step in the right direction. The Government are committed to publishing a White Paper in response to the recommendations of the national food strategy report. May I ask my hon. Friend the Minister when the White Paper is likely to be published?
As we approach Christmas, supermarkets are full of luxury food items and advertising features happy families sitting around bounteous feasts. I do not advocate the “Bah, humbug!” attitude to Christmas celebrations, but we must acknowledge the pressure that our consumer culture puts on low-income families and on our general health. We all know that in the new year we will be deluged with advertising for diet products, fitness videos and gym memberships.
Food is at the heart of community cohesion. Religious festivals in many faiths feature food; and when we share food, it shows we care. Last Saturday, I visited the volunteers preparing meals for Food For All in the Guru Nanak gurdwara. They deliver hundreds of portions of nutritious food weekly to local hostels. As I ate the tasty dal and rice, I learned of the importance of sharing food in the Sikh community and how their doors are always open to those needing food.
The issue of food security has been highlighted during the pandemic. As community meals, such as at YMCA North Staffordshire in my constituency, had to stop in the spring of last year, across the nation a volunteer army, organised through charities, faith groups, local businesses and local authorities, ensured that the most vulnerable in our communities were able to access food. Schools looked after their pupils with food deliveries during holidays and lockdowns. The already extensive network of food banks expanded and found new ways of operating in order to ensure that no one went hungry during the most difficult time that this nation has experienced in our lifetime. Government played a vital role in funding many of the volunteer organisations, and the success of the distribution depended on a close working partnership across all sectors and sections of our communities.
Access to food is the most basic of human rights, and the challenges around access to a healthy diet are major indicators of inequality. Eating lifts our spirits and gives us energy, but it is also a source of anxiety for those on low incomes. The Government have introduced guidance on what constitutes a healthy diet through Public Health England’s “Eatwell Guide”, but they have not fully evaluated whether the diet that it recommends is affordable to everyone. A Food Foundation report estimated that the poorest decile of UK households would need to spend 74% of their after-housing disposable income on food to meet the cost of the “Eatwell Guide”, compared with just 6% in the richest decile.
In its July 2020 report, “Hungry for change”, the Lords Select Committee on Food Poverty, Health and the Environment concluded:
“The UK’s food system—the production, manufacture, retail and consumption of food—is failing.”
The report, written a year before part 2 of the national food strategy was published, made many of the same recommendations to Government. It concluded that the Government need a unified food policy to ensure that we reduce the production and consumption of processed products and tackle food inequalities so that everyone can access a healthy diet. Only then can we produce food sustainably and protect the health of our planet and its populations. The report added:
“The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the need, and provided the opportunity, for the Government to act now with commitment and focus to deliver the improvements to the food system, public health and environmental sustainability that are so urgently required.”
I believe that the Minister, in her previous role in the Department of Health and Social Care, agreed with the ambition of the national food strategy. She told the Select Committee:
“We have a teachable moment, and we should seize it.”
This Government have shown their commitment to tackling environmental challenges by showing leadership at COP26. They should now consider the national food strategy’s recommendations as part of their approach, because our food system is driving climate change and biodiversity loss, which threaten our future food security. Food production is responsible for 34% of global emissions and is the leading cause of nature’s decline. The current system has driven huge losses in biodiversity, from deforestation in the Amazon to intensive industrial farming in the UK. In the future, climate change threatens to cause crop failures and nature loss, which makes our land less productive. That is a system failure, and not the fault of individual farmers or consumers. The new environmental land management schemes should include payments to farmers to provide public access to nature, which is demonstrably beneficial for mental health. It is essential that the Government hold firm on the transition to an environmentally ambitious ELM.
We have seen this Government’s ability to innovate when facing health challenges. They have shown global leadership by investing in world-leading research to develop vaccines to tackle the covid pandemic, and the roll-out of the vaccination programme has been superb. We need the same level of innovation in public health when designing preventive measures to tackle obesity. Billions of pounds are spent each year by the national health service on the treatment of significant but avoidable levels of diet-related obesity and non-communicable disease. By 2035, we will be spending 1.5 times as much to treat type 2 diabetes as we currently spend on all cancer treatments. From a health perspective, we need to resolve this.
Britain has the greatest levels of highly processed food in Europe, with the exception of Malta. Those products—containing unhealthy types of fat or salt, or highly refined carbohydrates, such as sugar—are aggressively marketed and promoted to the consumer. They are more likely to be on promotion, making them appealing to those on tight budgets. Manufacturing, retail and the food sector play central roles in this. The less healthy choice has become the easier, cheaper choice for the consumer, but this is inflicting profound costs on public health and the NHS. The Government have made some inroads into this agenda, by banning junk food advertising on TV before 9 pm, legislating to end the promotion of foods that are high in fat, sugar or salt, and restricting “buy one get one free” promotions.
Industry progress against voluntary reformulation targets should be subject to transparent and regular monitoring to highlight where successes and failures occur. The Government should make clear what regulatory action will follow if the industry does not respond comprehensively and swiftly to voluntary targets. Mandatory—that is, fiscal—approaches can work, as evidenced by the soft drinks industry levy. These taxes can also incentivise innovation and reformulation, which can help to build a better food system, such as through the use of potassium chloride, which is less harmful to health than conventional salt. Any measure that encourages innovation and moves the food industry to invest in healthier alternative products is welcome. I ask the Minister whether more work can be done to encourage innovation by incentivising good practice, as well as ensuring that foods that contribute negatively to the nation’s health bill share the cost of that bill.
Successive Governments have adopted different approaches to tackling obesity, which until now have relied heavily on encouraging individual behaviour change rather than addressing the structural issues and external factors that shape the food environment. Factors such as the affordability and accessibility of unhealthy foods help us understand the association between levels of deprivation and rates of obesity. The Government must clarify the vision for a healthy sustainable diet and set out a clear path towards achieving that. We must reward farmers for measures that promote improved public health, and ensure that trade agreements do not allow for the import of cheap food produced according to lower environmental and animal welfare standards than our own.
The Government have pledged to level up our country. Does the Minister agree that underpinning any economic levelling up must be a levelling up of life chances? Health inequalities cannot be tackled without a national food strategy that considers the entire food chain, from field to fork. That requires cross-departmental co-ordination and a dedicated system of oversight to bring about a tangible change in the way we produce, purchase and consume food. The complexity of the challenge requires the establishment of an independent body responsible for the strategic oversight of the implementation of the national food strategy. That independent body should have the power to advise the Government and report to Parliament on progress. Does the Minister agree that the Food Standards Agency might play a greater role in that regard?
Turning to my constituency, I know that people with limited resources often find it hard to access healthy food. Less healthy diets and their adverse consequences are not limited to those in the lowest income groups, but they affect those groups disproportionately. Adults and children in deprived areas are significantly more likely to become obese or suffer diet-related ill health. Research shows that adults on low incomes are more likely to have diets high in sugar and low in fibre, vegetables, fruit and fish. Children from the least well-off 20% of families consume around 29% less fruit and vegetables, 75% less oily fish, and 17% less fibre per day than children from the most well-off 20%. Such inequalities are particularly relevant in Stoke-on-Trent Central. Data shows that 41.4% of adults in Stoke-on-Trent eat the recommended five a day fruit and veg on a usual day—the lowest percentage recorded of any upper-tier local authority in England.
I absolutely agree that schools have a key role to play, both in the curriculum and in school food. Unfortunately, I have not been able to cover that, so I hope my right hon. Friend will be able to cover that aspect in his speech. The topic is wide ranging and I want to leave time for colleagues to make their points. However, I absolutely endorse what he has just said.
In the city of Stoke-on-Trent, around 92,000 adults aged 16 or over are not eating the recommended five portions on a daily basis. Data shows that 76.1% of adults in Stoke-on-Trent are overweight or obese, and that is the third highest figure of all local authorities in England. Research shows that people living in local authorities with the highest level of deprivation live closer and have access to almost five times as many fast-food outlets than those in more affluent areas. In Stoke-on-Trent in 2018, 55.6% of food outlets were classified as fast food outlets compared with 38.4% in the UK. Between 2010 and 2018, the average number of fast food outlets across the city increased from 48.5 per 100,000 to 69.5. An extra 55 takeaways opened in Stoke-on-Trent between 2010 and 2018, and I have yet to find a really healthy takeaway. I hope that someone will rise to the challenge and open one soon or let me know whether there is one.
The difficulties in producing healthier diets are not limited to the price of food. For many people in low-income groups, considerations such as equipment, energy costs, limited space to store purchases, and the cost of travelling to a wider choice of shops are real barriers to consuming healthier diets. In line with the Government’s levelling-up agenda, we must urgently help low-income families to eat well. Improving the diets of those with the lowest incomes and the poorest households would have both immediate and long-term benefits not just for those people, who would live longer in better health. It would also increase productivity and improve the economic outlook for the whole country.
The national food strategy report features several recommendations to reduce diet-related inequality that the Government should consider. They include extending the eligibility for free school meals, funding holiday activities and the food programme for the next three years, expanding the healthy start scheme, and initiating a trial “Community Eatwell” programme, thereby supporting those on low incomes to improve their diets. The national food strategy presents a critical opportunity to improve the health of the next generation. Young people spend 190 days of the year in school, and what they eat there is incredibly important. School meals significantly improve educational outcomes, and they provide access to nutritious meals for the millions of children experiencing food insecurity.
Research from Bite Back 2030 suggests that school food standards are routinely not being upheld, healthier options typically cost more, pupils who receive free school meals often experience great injustice, and young people’s experiences are vastly different from school to school. I was on a call with young people yesterday and asked them directly about their experiences of school meals. One of them said that they were from the school—Members may remember this crisis—where people had been handing chips through the fence. Another said that the only way for them to get good food would be for the local sandwich shop to move into the school, because that would be the only good alternative. There are really big issues around school food. We must ensure that school pupils have equal access to a good amount of food that is affordable and healthy. Students who both do and do not receive school meals deserve that.
Food policy has an impact on all sectors of our economy, environment and society, and the ability to access a healthy diet has a profound impact on people’s health and wellbeing. The most important commitment that the Government could make in the national food strategy would be to acknowledge the importance of this agenda by creating a cross-departmental structure with a specific brief for food, championed at the highest level. While DEFRA may look at environmental challenges in agriculture, there is a role for almost every Government Department in ensuring that a cohesive plan across the food system is delivered, to create a resilient, healthier and more sustainable food system.
The importance of reform is clear, and now is the time for the Government to seize the opportunity to reduce obesity, tackle health inequalities and protect the environment. I am grateful to the Minister for her support on this vital issue, and I ask that the recommendations to transform our food system for the better be embraced fully in the Government’s White Paper.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Efford. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) on securing the debate.
Before I start, I pay tribute to Henry Dimbleby, who did an excellent job in producing the national food strategy report, which is a mammoth piece of work. It should be not just our blueprint but our bible, going forward. There is so much in it that we could be debating week on week, and I hope that the Government take it on board and do not reject the proposals. It was very disappointing that when the report was launched the Government’s immediate reaction was to respond to misleading tabloid headlines that suggested there would be a sugar tax. The Government just panicked. Actually, as we saw with the soft drink levy, it does not mean that people have to pay more; it means that the industry reformulates the vast majority of its products. It is a very good lever to achieve change without having a disproportionate effect on poorer people.
However, the Government just saw the headlines, went into panic mode and almost immediately said that they were not going to support the recommendations, which must have made Henry think, “What on earth have I been doing for the last couple of years in putting so much work into this?” I hope that we get a more thoughtful response from the Minister today.
What was particularly galling was that that response from the Government came just after the Prime Minister, having recovered from covid and having said that his health issues were related to his weight, had declared war on obesity—but the moment that somebody came up with a mechanism that might have helped us to tackle obesity, the Government just seemed to reject it completely.
I do not know whether it is just political cowardice in the face of the press or capitulation to vested interests, but we have seen this type of thing in the past. I remember that during the coalition Government we had a public health responsibility deal and lots of different partners came on board to work with the Government on tackling public health. Salt was chosen as the first issue to address and I remember asking, “Will you be looking at junk food?” There was a piece of research about the impact of healthier diets on young offenders, which showed that as soon as we took away all this food that is full of additives, sugar and stimulants, quite a lot of the behavioural issues of young offenders dramatically changed. I should have thought that a public health responsibility deal would have looked at the impact of junk food on people’s diets, but they said, “Oh no, we’re not covering everything. We’re looking at salt.” Salt is low-hanging fruit, is it not, and the easy thing to address, because there are not the big vested interests with salt that there are with junk food and sugar.
What eventually happened is that the whole thing collapsed, because, to start with, the charities that were working with the Government on that deal just became entirely frustrated so they left, and we were left with just the fast food manufacturers working with the Government. The whole thing just did not get anywhere, because there was not leadership from the Government.
It has also taken a long time to achieve the limited ban on junk food advertising to children that we have; and it is just a ban on television advertising, when we know that many children will see these adverts online. That is something else where we could have seen far stronger action from the Government.
When it comes to public health, it is not just about the obvious products; it is also about ultra-processed products. Generally speaking, the longer the list of ingredients on a product, the less likely it is to be good for someone’s health. We saw during the horse meat scandal how things that can barely be classed as food—they might be full of calories, but they have very little nutritional value—were still being sold, despite having so many ingredients and having been passed from country to country with different elements being added, at incredibly cheap prices. We need action to tackle that.
One of the levers that the Government have is the procurement process. We know that the Government spend £2.4 billion per year on procuring food. It could make a huge difference if they adopted as a basis either the Eatwell plate model or the reference diet that Henry talks about. That is one of the things that I would like the Minister to answer—will we go down that path of using public procurement in a much stronger way?
We were told a couple of years ago that the Government were looking to review the national school food standards. However, when I asked questions about that, I was told that because of covid that review had been shelved. I would like to know whether it is now back on the agenda.
Those standards are extremely outdated. I will just mention briefly the requirement for schools to serve meat several times a week, which is not based on any clear nutritional evidence and is certainly not in line with what is being said about reducing meat in our diet for environmental reasons. That was another point in the national food strategy—Henry talked about the need to reduce UK meat consumption within 10 years. Again, there was the expected kneejerk response against that recommendation, rather than treating it seriously. Clearly, it is not just Henry saying that about meat; it is being said across the board.
I am conscious of time, so I will be brief. We need to support local food-growing and the work of organisations such as the Urban Agriculture Consortium. In Bristol, the Mayor was re-elected this year on a pledge to have food-growing land in every ward in the city—not just allotments, but bigger pieces of land.
I interviewed the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) when he was Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—he is now Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities—on stage at the Oxford Real Farming Conference, and he made a clear pledge that a lot more money was going to go into supporting county farms. We have lost half our county farms; he wanted to bring them back.
When I served on the Committee for the Agriculture Act 2020, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), repeatedly said, partly because I kept asking him, that there would be Government support for county farms. That was a clear pledge, but we have not seen any money coming forward. Bristol is an ideal location for peri-urban faming, which would help address the issue of food deserts.
In 2018, a Kellogg’s survey listed the top 100 food deserts in the country, showing access to healthy food. Surprisingly, two wards in Bristol South were in the top five in the country and one in my constituency was in the top 100. We think of Bristol as a foodie place, but it shows that the issue of access to good, healthy food on the doorstep is a real problem. Money going into peri-urban farming could help address that.
Finally, on food poverty, despite what the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central said, we had an opportunity to back what Henry Dimbleby said about school food, holiday hunger and making sure that kids did not go hungry during the school holidays when they could not get free school meals, and the Government voted it down. There is all this rhetoric about the wonderful national food strategy, but it means nothing unless the Government are actually prepared to support it.
There are some brilliant initiatives. In Bristol we have Feeding Bristol, an umbrella organisation that brings together food banks, food-growing projects, food redistribution networks such as FareShare, and projects such as 91 Ways, which works with refugee communities in the city to teach people about cooking and to help break down cultural divides at the same time. These are brilliant initiatives, but we should not just rely on that big society approach, and we certainly should not be relying on a Premier League footballer for the Government to act on food poverty.
My final question is, are we going to see a food Bill as a result of this strategy? I am hearing rumours that the White Paper will not be the precursor to legislation. I would like to know from the Minister, will this just have been a meaningless exercise or are we going to see legislation?
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon)—friend being the operative word—on all her campaigning on food. She is doing an incredible job, and I congratulate her on securing the debate.
The outbreak of the pandemic posed significant challenges for children and families across the country, especially those just about managing to put food on the table. It has been a very difficult issue for the Government. I was sad to vote against the Government on free school meals last year, but they did a significant amount after that vote, not just with the publication of the food strategy but the extension of the holiday activities programme, with hundreds of millions of pounds to support children and families over the summer.
As I have seen in my constituency, Essex Council does a huge amount to support holiday activities programmes in schools across Harlow and around Essex. It makes a significant difference. I have been to schools where children are doing science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, having mental health and wellbeing support, and taking part in sports activities. I think that should be continued and I welcome the commitment that was made to it in the Budget.
On the provision of school breakfasts, the statistics are clear. We know that children who regularly eat breakfast achieve, on average, two higher GCSE grades than children who do not. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that children in schools with breakfast clubs make two months’ additional academic progress. According to Kellogg’s, food hunger could cost the English economy at least £5.2 million a year through lost teaching time spent on dealing with the needs of hungry pupils. So, we have to make certain that there is a laser beam of focus continually aimed at prioritising academic catch-up because of food hunger, as well as mental health and wellbeing.
Lockdown and school closures have had a devastating impact on children’s learning, especially on those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Ofsted’s latest annual report shows that pupils lost 33 million days of learning. Even before the pandemic, disadvantaged pupils were 18.4 months behind, compared with their better-off peers. I hope very much that schools continue to remain open from January.
The Government are rightly boosting support for schools, with nearly £5 billion of catch-up funding, targeted through the national tutoring programme, but all the extra tuition in the world will not work if children arrive at school without having eaten a nutritious breakfast. Some will argue—and I get it—that that should be the responsibility of parents and carers. In an ideal world it should be, but sadly, that is not happening in too many cases. We cannot let the child suffer because of what might be going on in their family circumstances.
On our side of the House, we should rightly be concerned about public finances and the provision of funding for measures such as guaranteeing breakfast for all disadvantaged pupils. There is an answer that is staring the Government in the face: the co-called Coca-Cola tax or soft drinks industry levy. To be honest, I was not a great fan of that levy when it was first introduced, because I felt it disproportionately affected those on lower incomes who might want to buy a sugary treat for their kids now and then, but it does generate revenue of £340 million each year.
Given that the money was supposed to be hypothecated to fund healthy living initiatives, instead of just being snaffled by the Treasury, why not use it to fund hunger-reduction programmes? That way, no one needs to ask the taxpayer for more money. Currently, the Department for Education’s new breakfast provision service reaches just 30% of schools in high levels of disadvantage, and invests just £12 million a year. By comparison, last year taxpayers spent £380 million on free school meal vouchers.
Magic Breakfast is a wonderful organisation, for which I have huge respect. I meet a lot of charities in my job as Chair of the Education Committee and Magic Breakfast is one of the finest. It has calculated that for £75 million more per year, funded by the sugar tax, the Government could ensure that 7,300 of the most disadvantaged primary and special educational needs schools could provide a free, nutritious breakfast to every pupil who needs it. That would reach an estimated 900,000 pupils throughout the year, targeted at the most disadvantaged.
That could complement other initiatives, such as the £500 million funding for family hubs, championed by my esteemed colleague my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). If support could be made available to businesses feeling the brunt of the pandemic, surely we could provide welfare in the form of breakfast clubs, holiday activities and free school meals to children. In Wales, for example, the Government have recently introduced an extended school day pilot scheme for 14 schools. As part of the enrichment activities that schools will plan, I suggest that free school breakfast clubs should be included in the pilot.
I urge Ministers in the Department for Education to consider implementing a similar pilot scheme in England, especially in areas of high disadvantage. Those pilot schemes should be evaluated to the highest standards in order to better understand the outcomes. It is imperative that civil society groups involved in schemes are held to account in providing the best service possible for these young people. We need to be clear in looking at the success of outcomes.
In conclusion, dealing with child hunger is not a left-wing or right-wing issue. The levelling-up agenda has the potential to heal some significant social injustices in our country and provide every child with a hand up to climb the ladder of opportunity.
Supporting high-quality education and increasing academic attainment in schools is crucial to levelling up, but we cannot expect pupils to succeed on an empty stomach. No one has to ask the taxpayer for more money to do this; it is waiting to be used in Treasury coffers. As we look towards the new year and a new start, let us make free school breakfasts for all disadvantaged pupils a new year’s levelling-up resolution.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Efford. I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) for setting up the debate. She is part of that strong Stoke team. It is nice to see her in her place and to support her as well. I recently took part in a debate in which the hon. Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) talked about creating a more resilient food and drink industry for the United Kingdom. This debate aligns closely with that. We look forward to the Minister’s and shadow Minister’s responses; there are no two more capable people to look after this area. It is a pleasure to be here to again to highlight why our national food strategy is so important to the economy.
The Government’s approach to the national food strategy comes in two parts. The first focuses on urgent recommendations to support the country through the turbulent impacts of the covid-19 pandemic, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central referred to. The second examines good and bad outcomes of the strategy and the economics that deliver them. For us in Northern Ireland, the food and drink sector is so important. The national food strategy is equally important, as is the need to address public health issues. As stated in previous debates, the pandemic has had a significant impact on the Northern Ireland economy. Specifically, the economic output of the hospitality sector was atrociously affected, down by 90% in April 2020. That gives an idea of the impact on us in Northern Ireland, and in my constituency, where hospitality is so important and where many derive their living from it. While output improved in August 2020 due to the eat out to help out campaign, it was still below pre-pandemic levels.
While the food strategy aims to address England’s economic situation over the next 75 years, I warmly welcome recent work by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister back home, my colleague Edwin Poots, who has done instrumental work over the last few months initiating the Northern Ireland food strategy framework, which has six main priorities. I support the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central, as will others, but I will give a Northern Ireland perspective to these debates, which I think will complement the hon. Lady’s points. The aim is to publish the strategy in 2022, so I urge the Minister to engage with Minister Poots on it. I have absolutely no doubt that she will. It would be good to share thoughts on how we can perhaps learn from each other.
One of the Government’s main principles for the national food strategy is to ensure it is built upon a resilient and sustainable agricultural sector. I often think we forget how important that sector is to our meat and dairy sector. I represent a mostly rural constituency, so I understand that, but we also have some strong urban groups. In 2020, agriculture contributed some 0.59% to the UK’s GDP. These figures have fallen in recent years, further emphasising the need to do more to protect farmers through the basic payment scheme, which I know the Minister supports.
In addition, I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central for raising the importance of the national food strategy for schools and young people, as did the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who is a real champion—we use that word often in the Chamber, but it is true in his case—of education. I often look to his contributions, as Chair of the Education Committee, and I thank him for that. We need nutritional food in schools. For some pupils, school meals are the main meal of the day, so it is important that we get this right and that all our pupils benefit. Recent statistics show that 37% of schoolchildren do not eat a proper breakfast in the morning, so I agree with the national food strategy aim to help to address malnutrition in schools and protect the physical health of children.
At home, many schools run a breakfast club in recognition of the importance of that meal for concentration, as the first meal of the day. In recognition of the 103,000 children in Northern Ireland living in poverty, the Northern Ireland Minister for Education introduced wraparound care as soon as schools were opened back in Northern Ireland. These clubs are a priority in any and every food strategy document.
Mr Efford, I will briefly run through some statistics—I will not go over my time because I will adhere to your guidelines—to emphasise the importance of having a resilient and sustainable food strategy. Our food system is responsible for a third of local greenhouse gas emissions. Some 46% of children from black and ethnic minorities are in poverty and 14% of parents who live with their children have experienced food insecurity. Those are the stats, and although stats can sometimes go over people’s heads, it is important that we focus on them, because they give us an idea of how the food strategy will address some of the issues. We must also look at whether our rivers and lakes have a good ecological status. Some 25% of children born in 2020 will be obese by the time they are 25. Those are big issues, which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central and others have referred to.
To conclude, those figures are the reason why we must do more now to protect our public health and national food strategy, especially after the impacts of the pandemic, Brexit and, one that is crucial to my constituents, the Northern Ireland protocol—not that the Minister is responsible, but it is one of the issues that we have in Northern Ireland to deal with: trade between the mainland and us in Northern Ireland, and vice versa. We in Northern Ireland export, I think, almost 60% of our products to the rest of the world, so it is important for food and the food strategy that we do not have any barriers to that.
The important thing for me in this debate on the national food strategy and public health is—I say this very honestly—public health: the health of our children and of the future. I encourage communication with the devolved nations to ensure that the United Kingdom can move forward collectively, with a public health situation that represents everyone, can benefit everyone, and protects our economy, because we need our economy to be boosted. I must pay tribute to the Minister, and to our Government too, because when it comes to boosting our economy, they have done that and done it well. We need the Government to protect the wellbeing of our constituents, because that is the reason we are all here: because our constituents vote for us.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I commend my friend and colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) for securing this important debate; it is great timing, and she is quite right to talk about what is coming up, with Christmas food and what might happen afterwards.
I also want to pick up on the comments about Henry Dimbleby, who has done a brilliant piece of work, which I commend the Government for commissioning. I, too, commend Henry Dimbleby for the way that he has engaged with parliamentarians in explaining his report. He has come to the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which I serve on, and to other groups that I have an interest in, and carefully explained, in detail, what the strategy includes. It is helpful to get to meet with the person behind a strategy and see all the thinking and intelligence that has gone into it.
I would maybe encourage the hon. Member for Bristol West (Kerry McCarthy) to take the opportunity to meet Henry Dimbleby and ask some of her questions. I believe that she may have—
That is good to hear, but when we spoke to him about the launch of the strategy and the Government’s initial response—in fact, the Prime Minister’s response when it was sprung on him, before he had seen the report—Henry’s take was very different to what we heard earlier. His comments about meat were also certainly different from what we have heard. I hope to come on to that in a minute.
It is absolutely right that we are having this debate. I want to focus on UK food production. We have heard about the importance of the strategy and of good, nutritious food in our children and right across our population. I want to concentrate on how we actually produce that food and ensure that, in the UK, we produce absolutely as much as we possibly can, because UK food production is critical to achieving all that has been encouraged already.
A successful UK food and farming sector delivers healthy food for our nation. It delivers a reduced carbon footprint and reduced food miles. It is much easier to trace what is in our food and where it comes from when it is produced here, locally. We are much more confident about the standards of animal welfare and of the things that we put on our land to encourage our crops to grow. We are obviously all committed to reducing food miles, so whatever we and the Government can do to support the food and farming sector in the UK can only help to deliver the important things that are in the strategy and have been rehearsed this morning.
Action is needed; I will run through a few points about how it is needed, I believe urgently. Take labour, for example. We have seen in the last couple of years—for various reasons that we do not necessarily need to go into—a real reduction in the individuals to harvest crops, and now to even put them in the ground. That is certainly our experience in Cornwall, and I know it is experienced elsewhere. For the whole of the year, I and others have been encouraging the Government to get on with reintroducing or renewing the seasonal agricultural workers scheme pilot—as it is being at the moment. We have also argued that it be extended to allow for more things to be harvested and sown.
Despite working on this for the whole year, and given that it should start on 1 January, we heard for the first time only yesterday morning at our Select Committee that the Government will continue with the pilot. It sounds as if the Government have listened to what we have said, and they have extended the scheme through to 2024. This gives farmers much more confidence in planning their food production and harvesting. If the Government were really committed to our food and farming sector, they would not leave it right until the end of the year before telling the industry what the arrangements are for the following year—that is not as good as it could be. I encourage the Minister to take the message back, if they have not already heard it, about the importance of moving much more quickly to support farmers and give them clarity about what they need to do and plan for.
I welcome the Minister to her place; I have not had the opportunity to do so since she was moved. I commend her for her work in the Department of Health and Social Care and now the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. There is definitely a desire in the UK to move from relying on people from abroad to sow and harvest our food; however, we do not spend much time in schools introducing our children to how their food is produced. In our primary and secondary schools, we need to work with children to get them to understand, not just how important it is to have a healthy and nutritious diet and how that can be put together, but how our food is actually produced.
We need to teach our children that there are opportunities to work in food and farming, and that they can have a successful, satisfying and rewarding career working in that industry. The value of that has been lost over recent generations. I encourage the Minister to comment on how the Department for Education, DEFRA, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department for Work and Pensions and even the Home Office—bizarrely—are all working together to make sure that we really encourage our own people to see food and farming as a rich and enjoyable career.
With the environmental land management scheme, we will be able to direct, encourage and nurture good food production with Government support. As we know, previously—and still—food and farming was supported through the common agricultural policy, which favoured the size of the asset rather than what was produced. ELMS is much more about how we care for the environment, how we produce the food we need and how we reward public money with public good. I would encourage the Minister to make sure that ELMS delivers as intended—and on time. There is some concern about the delays, and there is encouragement to delay; I absolutely do not agree that we should. I would appreciate it if the Minister took away from this debate the need to get on top of ELMS and ensure that it helps to produce the food that we all need—including our children.
We need to support innovation. On ensuring that we have the food we need, for example, automation is absolutely needed, but we are a long way off from making that work and understanding how it can help us. We can produce so much more with indoor growing systems, but that must be done in a renewable and sustainable way. My first debate in this Chamber in 2016 was on food security. I argued then that we needed a way of clearly demonstrating that food was produced locally and sustainably—some form of British flag or kitemark. At that point, £2.4 billion of public money was spent on procuring food. I do not believe that we have made much progress since on ensuring that as much of the food as possible that goes into our children in schools, into people in hospitals and prisons, and into public sector offices is British-produced. The Government have always indicated that they want to do that. Now that we have left the EU, the Government have a real opportunity to favour British food in all public sector procurement, including schools.
I have supported some work in Cornwall, where food that would otherwise go to waste is made into healthy, nutritious meals and go to those who need it. There is a real demand for it across the country. I understand that food waste alone accounts for about 10% of our carbon emissions. We could address that and provide food for the people who most need it, as the hon. Member for Bristol East rightly stressed, so we should look at how we can ensure that surplus food goes to the right people.
On free school meals, the arrangement at the time was £15 per child per week, but there was no control over how that £15 was spent. Bizarrely, we have talked about how we want children to have good, nutritious food with low salt and sugar content, but if we just give a family £15 a week per child, there is no way to manage or control that. Delivering healthy and nutritious food boxes to families is far better, and the schools and communities that I worked with preferred that, but I appreciate that it was a bit of an untidy affair. We did not handle it very well, but it is the case that Cornwall Council has received £5 million this winter to help families with food and other support. It is fair to true to say that the families in the most difficult situations today are able to get support and help with nutritious food, if it is organised and managed properly. I encourage all local authorities to ensure that that continues to be a priority.
How do we balance all these things together? Sometimes we talk about the need to tackle climate change as though it is in competition with food production or levelling up, but I believe they can all complement each other. Supporting the British food sector to move towards a more climate-friendly approach, which it is able and willing to do, would help to produce the food that our nation needs.
It is a real honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) for securing this important debate.
The national food strategy was a real opportunity to take steps to tackle the horrific levels of food insecurity being experienced by upwards of 11 million people in the UK. The report highlighted the deep inequalities in access to nutritious food, and I welcome proposals such as widening the eligibility threshold for free school meals—including for children whose immigration status currently excludes them—a long-term scheme for holiday food provision for children who get free school meals, and an extension of the healthy start scheme. If adopted, they would all bring about real improvements in access to healthy food. The recommendations represent an important step towards the change that is needed.
I place on the record my thanks to Henry Dimbleby, Anna Taylor and the team for their work on the national food strategy and for the time they gave me on this issue. However, I believe that the report can be built on even further and strengthened. We should not be tinkering around the edges; it should have gone further—I want to place that on the record. I was proud to campaign alongside thousands of others for the legal right to food, which should have been included in the recommendations. We will now focus on campaigning for the right to food to be included in the Government’s White Paper and good food Bill.
Like austerity, food insecurity is a political choice by Governments, not a predetermined occurrence, and it cannot be fixed without concerted effort by the Government of the day to take clear responsibility. I am sorry, but it is immoral that this country has more food banks than McDonald’s outlets in 2021. Let us remember that this is the fifth-richest country in the world.
I want to mention some of the public health impacts that we are seeing as a result of the crisis of food insecurity. Malnutrition has tripled in the UK since the coalition Government came to power in 2010, and cases of scurvy and rickets have more than doubled. This coincides with soaring poverty caused by austerity, the removal of the social safety net and the enormous rise in the use of food banks, as I have outlined. In Liverpool, 32% of adults are food-insecure, whereby food is a source of worry, frustration and stress. That equates to a staggering 160,000 people in my great city. Only 12% of kids in Liverpool aged 11 to 18 have five portions of fruits and vegetables a day—again, that is an appalling statistic.
Around 14% of households in Liverpool experience fuel poverty, which is significantly higher than the average across England. Fuel poverty is a barrier to cooking, as highlighted by Professor Ian Sinha, who is a paediatrician at the fantastic Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in my constituency. He says:
“A big issue at the moment is the interplay between food and fuel poverty—eat or heat—in essence babies and infants in the coldest houses will spend their calories trying not to get hypothermia rather than utilising the energy to grow their body systems and lay the foundations for a healthy life course”.
Children’s rights are being eroded by this Government, and in international comparisons the UK does badly. The right to food is one of the most basic and fundamental necessities, and one that has often been violated by this Government, through austerity, welfare sanctions, the dismantling of the safety net and public services, and recently the disgraceful cuts to universal credit. The right to food needs to be enshrined in law, and I urge the Minister to consider that.
One of the key asks of the right to food campaign is for universal free school meals, which has been touched on, in essence, throughout the debate. A nutritious, free school breakfast and lunch for every child in compulsory education would build on the recommendations of the national food strategy, and on the evidence of the positive health impact it would have. There will be those who say we cannot afford to do this. I would say, “How can we afford not to do this?”. It is an investment in our country’s future. If we accept the universal and compulsory requirement that all children up to the age of 16 be in school, why do we break from that principle of universal care, nurture and protection in relation to children’s meals during the school day? We would think it absurd if children were not provided with adequate shelter, heating, drinking water and sanitation while in school, so why take a different approach to the equally essential elements of learning materials and food? The evidence of better concentration, behaviour and learning among properly nourished children is there for all to see, and universal free school meals would, further, avoid the bureaucracy and stigma of means-testing our school- age children. Portugal provides universal free school meals. All children sit down together and have a three- course meal—they break bread together. That is where we should be going, and what we should aim for as a society.
Around the country, the strong backing for the right to food to be enshrined in law is clear. Since we started the campaign 12 months ago, a motion has been passed at the TUC conference in September, with 5.5 million trade union members overwhelmingly voting for the right to food. Councils up and down the country have declared themselves right-to-food towns and cities: Liverpool, Manchester, Greater Manchester combined authority, Liverpool city region, Rotherham, Brighton and Hove, Haringey, St Helens, Preston, Lancaster, Durham, Newcastle, Portsmouth, Totnes, Coventry, Sheffield and Birmingham. Many more are considering declaring themselves right-to-food towns and cities. That is the strength of feeling across the country.
I hope we can build on the ambitions of the national food strategy. I ask the Minister to consider putting the right to food in a Government White Paper and good food Bill. If this is not achieved, the mantra of levelling up will be an empty slogan for so many currently living in food poverty.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) on bringing this incredibly important debate to us. I know that we have an excellent Minister from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs with us, but this morning I have been thinking that, ideally, we would have a Minister from the Department of Health and Social Care, and probably the Children’s Minister as well. I know that they are very busy in their Departments, and that is not the convention, but we need serious, cross-Government work on this issue to get it right.
This all starts with the soil, and with looking after the soil. If we do not look after our soil, we cannot grow nutrient-rich food, and I am afraid that we have a problem with this globally, as a number of publications have stated. Scientific American’s April 2011 edition said that
“each successive generation of fast-growing, pest-resistant carrot is truly less good for you than the one before”,
and it has probably only got worse since then. There is also evidence that we need to eat several more tomatoes today to get the same level of nutrients that we would have got from one tomato a few years ago.
Looking after the soil is also good for dealing with climate change. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, 34% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture. We often think, “Well, agriculture can’t be part of the problem. It’s all those diesel-belching buses and coal-fired power stations that are the problem.” But food production around the world is responsible for 34% of greenhouse gas emissions. It need not be like that, because the soil can sequester more carbon than all the plants and trees on the whole planet if we look after it. And if we look after it, we get better-quality food and we will all be healthier. We can do that: we can have less pesticide, fertiliser and so on if we grow more legumes, pulses and lentils. That fixes nitrogen in the soil and is actually better for us. One of the best things you can eat, Mr Efford, is lentils. There is a bit of a virtuous circle here, and I congratulate the Government on getting this with the sustainable farming incentive.
I went to the Groundswell farming conference last year. A couple of thousand British farmers are on this journey, because they want to look after their soils and grow nutrient-rich foods so that we have healthy children and healthy adults—they want to do the right thing. We are on a journey and, as the Second Church Estates Commissioner, I am very proud that on our 92,000 acres of farmland in England, we are going on that journey. I have been pushed on that by the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and others and I can tell her that we have signed a compact with the National Trust. The train has left the station and we are going on that journey.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his contribution. Does he recognise, as others do, that the National Farmers Union and its sister organisation in Northern Ireland, the Ulster Farmers Union, have already committed to net zero carbon by 2050? That shows that the farming community want to do this; they did not have to be pushed to do it, and they are on their way.
I agree. I, too, am in very close touch with my local farmers, who as a group are one of the heroes of this piece. We need to be on the side of farmers. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) said, we need to help them to do the right thing. I think they absolutely want to do the right thing.
I do not think we realise quite how bad the food that we eat is in this country compared with the rest of Europe. It is truly shocking. This is all in the House of Lords Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment Committee’s July 2020 report, “Hungry for change: fixing the failures in food”, and it was repeated in the national food strategy. As a country, we are an absolute outlier in the amount of highly processed food that we eat. More than half of all the food that we eat is highly processed. The figure is only 14% in France, 13% in Italy and 10% in Portugal—already cited favourably by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne). We are five times worse than Portugal in the amount of highly processed food that we eat.
Why does that matter? I will tell you why it matters, Mr Efford. In 2018, a scientist called Monteiro did a report across 19 European countries that showed that a 10% increase in the amount of highly processed food we eat leads to a 12% increase in cancers, a 12% increase in cardiovascular disease and a 21% increase in depressive symptoms. Is it any wonder that one in seven people is on antidepressants? I wonder whether that has anything to do with the food we eat. These figures are just appalling, but I think they are quite a closely guarded secret. I do not think people know about them, and it is our job to get them out there and to challenge the food companies so that they do better.
Some food companies are on a journey. For example, the Obesity Health Alliance told me that Tesco—it particularly singled Tesco out—has committed that two thirds of all that it sells will be healthy product. It is not there yet; it is on a journey, but it is starting to get this. There is a supermarket in the Netherlands called Marqt. It is only small; it has about 16 stores, I think. It has a commitment to its customers to sell only healthy food that is good for them, because that is part of its philosophy, and it makes money as well. This is possible. We do not have to be on the treadmill of selling people the wrong things, which are bad for them. Their brains do not develop properly and they cannot achieve the potential from all the God-given talents that they were created with. We really can do better.
In schools and in so many of our public institutions, we are not doing well enough. I am waiting for a meeting with the Children’s Minister—he promised at the Dispatch Box to give me a meeting—on school food standards. The campaigners at Bite Back 2030, Jamie Oliver’s foundation, have already been mentioned today. Let me quote what one of its panellists said:
“I’m racking my brain because I don’t think my school does a single healthy option”.
The campaigners at Bite Back think that the food is not as it should be in about 40% of schools; the Soil Association thinks that the figure is 60%. I do not know whether it is 40% or 60%, but it is far too many.
The mechanisms for effective monitoring of the Government’s school food standards are not good enough and they are not being observed. I have been a school governor for 20 years, and we have a lot to do. I have sat with the children and eaten school dinners with them—what I had in Studham Village school was particularly good—but the dinners are not always that good. We need to do better. Why? Because the figures are absolutely appalling. Even before children get to school, the figures are awful, and they have got worse during the pandemic.
The figure for obesity among reception-aged children went from 9.9% in 2019-20 to 14.4% in 2020-21. That is even before children get to school. By the time they leave school, two in five are above a healthy weight and a quarter are living with obesity. Obese children are more likely to become obese adults, with the associated type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease and liver disease. This stuff really matters—it is really important, and we really can do better.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central: It is not about being a killjoy; it is not about “Bah, humbug!” We should actually be incredibly positive and upbeat about the business opportunities for British farmers and food manufacturers. Good, healthy food is delicious; it is wonderful. There is so much pleasure and enjoyment to come from it. I am very upbeat and positive, not at all negative, because there are so many better, delicious foods that we could have, and so many opportunities for our farmers.
Fundamentally, this is about making the right, good and proper thing the easy and affordable thing to do. Too often, healthy food is more expensive. It need not be that way—it really need not, and it is not always the case in Europe. There are issues about giving people a little confidence in how to cook and so on. This is a big national effort. I am looking forward to the White Paper. We have a lot to do, because we are not in the right place.
It is a huge pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Efford. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) on securing the debate and on her work on the all-party parliamentary group.
I echo the commendations and praise for Henry Dimbleby and his excellent team, and particularly the comments from my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy). The team put in a huge amount of effort. Of course, it was a long time ago that Henry Dimbleby was asked to carry out this work on behalf of the Government. If Government Members are looking for a present for the Prime Minister, I commend this report. It is a weighty tome. They may feel that they gave him his Christmas present last night, but the national food strategy is really good—I see well-thumbed copies around this Chamber.
It was not the team’s fault that the political world has changed and that Secretaries of States come and go, but while the politics may change, the underlying problems really do not. I echo the fury of the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). He is right to be angry about our current food system. Dimbleby’s words at the start of the report are damning:
“The food system we have today is both a miracle and a disaster…the food we eat—and the way we produce it—is doing terrible damage to our planet and to our health.”
That is quite an introduction—terrible damage to our health. That should be a big flashing warning light to any Government.
I am glad we have a chance to discuss this issue at all. I have been chiding the Minister’s colleague, the Minister for Farming, Fisheries and Food, for many months on this issue, and she has promised that there will be a response in January, but that is almost six months since the report was published. Exactly as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East said, the initial response from Downing Street was to pour a bucket of cold water all over the strategy, in response to some rather foolish tabloid headlines, as if the salt and sugar tax was the only thing in this substantial report.
It was pretty clear that the Government did not like Dimbleby’s observations on trade policy either. I raised that issue at DEFRA questions a while ago. I pointed out that Henry was hardly a happy man, given his comments to the Soil Association conference, where he is reported as saying,
“the Government has clearly rejected my advice.”
He also said:
“There is no point in creating a food and farming system here that looks after animals, sequesters carbon, and supports biodiversity, if overseas products on our shelves don’t do the same.”
Well, quite. It is significant that the finished national food strategy report has on it in big red letters, “THE PLAN”—it is the overarching plan that has been missing in this space.
The Food Foundation and Sustain made those points powerfully in their briefings. The Agriculture Act 2020, the Environment Act 2021 and the Fisheries Act 2020, which some of us have been involved in over the last couple of years, would have made much more sense if they were not just a post-leaving-the-EU fix, but part of an overall strategy for how we feed ourselves in a fair and sustainable way. It has all been done the wrong way round—it is back to front. Tomorrow we will see the Government sneak out their report on food security on the last possible day that they are allowed to under the Agriculture Act. How much food we wish to produce should have been a key starting point, not an afterthought. As the Climate Change Committee points out, there is still no plan from DEFRA on how we get to net zero. So it is muddle, muddle, muddle—perhaps the Prime Minister is in charge after all.
To return to the report and what it tells us about the current state of our food system, that system is highly efficient in narrow economic terms, but Dimbleby also concludes that it contributes to a range of health issues, and particularly obesity, as other Members have picked up. Although there are many fantastic British food and drink producers serving us nutritious, healthy and affordable food—I am grateful, as always, to the Food and Drink Federation for its excellent advice—there is, as has been pointed out, an increasing prevalence of high-salt, high-sugar, ultra-processed and unhealthy foods in our diet.
Many of these figures have already been quoted, but I will repeat them: £18 billion—8% of all Government healthcare expenditure—is spent on conditions relating to high body mass index every year, and one in seven children in England is already obese when they start primary school. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) so powerfully pointed out, those trends exacerbate existing inequalities. Children living in the most deprived areas are more than twice as likely as those living in the least deprived areas to be obese, which is not surprising given that the Food Foundation tells us that healthier foods are nearly three times as expensive as less healthy foods calorie for calorie.
The national food strategy shone a light on a lot of this and called for significant Government action to address it. I will not repeat all the points that others have made, but when one looks at where we are now, the Government are failing on too many fronts. In the course of 10 years in government, they have presided over a growing food bank scandal and obesity crisis. Inequality and poverty have gone up, and we know that poor health is often directly related to lack of income. It can hardly have come as a surprise that cutting universal credit and raising taxes for working families at a time when food price inflation is severe—let us remember that with 5% inflation today, many people face a really difficult new year—would not produce good health outcomes. As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central pointed out, Sustain and the Food Foundation have produced damning statistics on how much it costs poorer people to feed themselves with decent, healthy food. I pay wholesome tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby for the Right to Food campaign that he and colleagues are running.
When it comes to changing our food culture, there is a clear role for the Government and the food and drink sector to work together. With Labour, there will not just be healthier food for all, but healthy British food. In her Budget speech, the shadow Chancellor, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), told the country that Labour would buy British and make changes to public procurement so that our schools and hospitals are stocked with healthy, locally sourced food—a policy also promoted in the national food strategy.
I have no doubt there is considerable common ground in the Chamber on these issues: we all want a healthier country; an end to food banks; shorter, more secure supply chains; a fair deal for producers; and healthy, nutritious British food widely available. The question is how. When Labour left office, we had a plan, “Food 2030”. Since then, the country has not had a plan. Ultimately, this Government’s plan is not to have a plan and to leave it to the market. That is one approach, but it does not work if we want healthy, sustainable, fair outcomes, which is why “THE PLAN”—Dimbleby’s plan—is such a welcome contribution to this vital debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) for securing today’s debate, for her important contributions as Chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the national food strategy and for her broader interest in this area. We have had many conversations driven by her passion for ensuring fair access. I have had similar conversations with many other hon. Members here today.
I thank everyone for their thoughtful contributions. I agree with the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) that we have a great deal in common in this space. I add my thanks to Henry Dimbleby for producing the national food strategy and for the way he engaged with me in my previous role. I thank him for taking up the mantle when the Government offered him this work, which he has driven forward.
At this time of year, I would like to recognise and celebrate the hard work of everyone who keeps the nation fed. We have heard about them all today: our great producers from the land, our manufacturers, our retailers, and the charities and volunteers who enable those who are suffering challenges to feed themselves and their broader families and to get the assistance they need.
I would like to refer to Bite Back: meeting those young people, and particularly Dev, on many occasions left me with the powerful impression that this is a cross-Government issue, as many have said. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) mentioned the Children’s Minister and public health. I would also include Ministers from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Department for Education.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central said, we share food and that shows we care. Food should be that source of enjoyment, good health and cultural expression. It is important that our food system delivers for everyone fairly across the board. Tackling poverty in all its forms is a key priority for the Government and the best way of ensuring that everyone has affordable access to food.
During the past year, significant support has been given to the economically vulnerable as part of the response to covid-19, which has driven greater problems into the system. The key priorities in levelling up are part of that cross-Government, joined-up agenda. I know that my hon. Friend, who supports the work going on in her area, is fully behind ensuring that that works. The Government also continue to monitor food insecurity and will bring a report to Parliament tomorrow, within its timescale. Under the Agriculture Act, that is a regular report, and will have to come to Parliament every three years. The report tomorrow will include supply chain resilience, household food security and food safety.
We will publish the food strategy White Paper early next year. I have spoken to the Minister for Farming, Fisheries and Food. She indicated that it is her intention to push for January but, given current circumstances, I will say early next year. That will set out the Government’s wider ambition and priorities for the food system, ensuring that food is not only affordable but sustainable and healthy. We want to support those exceptional British producers we have heard so much about, and enhance the nation’s health and natural environment.
The food strategy will play a key role in supporting the Government’s obesity plan, helping people to make the right food choices for themselves and the planet. It will also recognise the link between deprivation and health outcomes, such as children living in the most deprived areas being twice as likely to be more obese than those living in the least deprived areas. As several hon. Members have pointed out, that is not fair. It is about access and education.
We have spoken on many occasions about the role of educators, not just in schools, in helping people to understand how to access food and what they can do with it. Food waste is a real challenge for this country. We need to ensure that people use the food they buy effectively to give their families a healthy diet. That goes for all families, because the cost of food waste for the environment is enormous. The strategy will also recognise the link between deprivation and health outcomes. Children living in the most deprived areas are twice as likely to be obese than those living in the least deprived areas.
In my previous role at the Department of Health and Social Care, I worked hard on strategies to help people to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. That is one of the most important things, because the link between obesity and diabetes, cancer, heart disease, depression and a plethora of other things is so clear.
I am going to try to trot on, but I will answer some of the individual comments now.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central about the need for a holistic approach. This is about inequality of access and the links to deprivation, so we need a vital unified policy across Government. If nothing else, the covid pandemic of the past year or two has shown more starkly than ever the need for that policy.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives, West Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly—I will not give his constituency that title every time; I will say my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) from now on—spoke about vertical farming. He, like my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central and several others, said that innovation and education in this space are hugely important. The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) spoke about the possibility of vertical farming in urban places to help people have more of a connection with their food. A huge amount could also be gained from those innovations helping people overseas.
I seem to remember that my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives was at the Farmvention event in Parliament recently where young people from schools spoke about their food, where it comes from and food production. They came up with some amazing ideas about how to be more sustainable and to grow the healthy, nutritious food that we need.
I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central that I have spoken to Professor Susan Jebb at the Food Standards Agency. Her background in food is second to none in this country, and I am sure that we will work closely in future. Fast food outlets are more prolific in deprived areas. I know that work has been done with local authorities—Lewisham Council in London springs to mind, but work has taken place across the country—on advertising near schools and on the placement of fast food outlets. I urge my hon. Friend to take up the matter with the Departments that are responsible for it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central also mentioned the holiday activities and food programme, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). I remember when I went; it was absolutely fantastic. This year’s scheme concentrated on helping to educate young people. In the forest, we cooked a vegetable curry and made little chapatis to go with it, and we worked together to understand food, cooking and all those sorts of things. The extension of those programmes would certainly have my support.
I urge my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow to lobby both the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and the Chancellor on the soft drinks industry levy. We know there has been a reduction of around 45% in sugar in drinks, but we have also seen an uptick in the sale of soft drinks, to about 105% of the figure it was when that tax was brought in, so he is right to say that it is not always negative.
I pay tribute to Magic Breakfast and to the many teachers who, without such charities, help and support children in their classes who they know are vulnerable.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives for his positive comments about domestic food production, which is critical. I heard the message about farming and labour, and I will take that back to my hon. Friend the Minister for Farming, Fisheries and Food so I hope he will hear something on that shortly.
Environmental land management schemes, the 25-year environment plan and the sustainable farming initiative all ensure we are moving towards the right package of initiatives to help our farmers do the right thing. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire spoke about working with producers, so that they are doing the right thing and making sure our children have healthier food.
The Health and Care Bill will bring in restrictions on advertising less healthy food on television and online. By the end of 2022, there will be a 9 pm watershed for high-fat, salt and sugar products to be advertised on TV and there will restrictions on paid-for advertising for high-fat, salt and sugar products online. The Department for Health and Social Care has committed £6 million to initiatives to help and incentivise people to take on healthier eating habits and lose weight.
On 1 October 2021, the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities was launched to tackle the top preventable diseases. I know the chief medical officer is absolutely committed to making obesity one of his top agenda items and, within that, ensuring there is space to give all people access to a proper diet.
We are making progress and the food strategy will build on that, consider related aspects of affordability and health sustainability in unison, and set out how we can lead, using a holistic, Government-wide approach to making better food, for example in prisons and hospitals. All the recommendations of the hospital food review, led by Prue Leith and Phil Shelley, have been adopted. Next year, we will look at the Government buying standards for food and catering services, which will be hugely important. There are some brilliant schools, but some really need to catch up with making sure our children have the right food.
I still believe we have a teachable moment. I hope that you, Mr Efford, and colleagues are reassured that we are committed to rolling out the food strategy as soon as we can in order to transform the food system and support the important work under way across Government to ensure we are all as healthy as we can be.
I sincerely thank the Minister. She has always been a champion for this agenda and what she has said today reassures me that she not only will be a champion within DEFRA, but will take this message to other Departments.
I thank everybody who has taken part in the debate. It has been very broad, which is the nature of the national food strategy. I thank Henry Dimbleby for the incredible work that has gone into this plan. I reiterate my message that this is a cross-Departmental challenge that we all need to address in a way that satisfies the concerns of everybody around the table.
We covered everything from school food procurement, farming, food education, careers in the food industry, food security, fuel poverty, the food Bill—
Yes, breakfast, and public health across the four nations. Have I left any comments out? The fact the debate is so difficult to summarise in two minutes indicates how important the subject is to everybody in this room. I thank everybody for giving their time, and I particularly thank the Minister for listening and for taking our message back.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the National Food Strategy and public health.
European Entry-Exit System Requirements: Port of Dover
Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when not speaking in the debate. This is in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. This can be done either in the testing centre in the House or at home. Please give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the application of European Entry and Exit System requirements to the Port of Dover.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak about border issues in Dover. For once, this is not about small boats and illegal migration, on which my hon. Friend the Minister and his ministerial colleagues often hear from me, but about European border requirements and legal border controls operating at the port of Dover and other designated locations within the UK. More specifically, it is about the impact of those legal border controls as a result of the upcoming introduction of the digital borders programme by the European Union during 2022, in the context of the Schengen free movement area.
I will set out the context of the debate, which is what happens at, and through, the port of Dover. The port of Dover is the most successful port of its kind in the UK. It is of fundamental strategic and business importance to the whole country and will be well into the future. More than £144 billion in value of freight is transported through the port each year. The port manages a third of all UK trade with the EU, and together with the Eurotunnel, those combined routes—known as the short straits—manage almost 60% of all trade with the EU. The port is beautiful to behold, with a sheer operational efficiency, pace, speed and excellence that saw, pre covid, the port processing 1,000 lorries per hour and a passenger per second when combining inbound and outbound volumes. Few places anywhere have this level of speed and efficiency.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister has joined me at the port of Dover in the past and seen its operations at first hand. Those operations are possible not only because the port is really good at it and has been doing it a long time. It is the shortest route to market, and the market is competitive, and those competitive forces have required efficiency and excellence. I commend chief executive Doug Bannister and the Dover port team for all they do, which is fundamentally possible because border controls between the EU and the UK are part of this well-oiled machine.
Post Brexit, in spite of the many doomsters, gloomsters and fearmongers, trade flows between our nation and its European neighbours continued uninterrupted and unimpeded, other than the appalling consequences to my constituency when the French unilaterally and unreasonably closed the border before Christmas 2020, which predated our leaving the EU. That resulted in gridlock for Dover and the surrounding area. It meant residents struggling to get essential food, including meals on wheels, and to get to work or to hospital. It is a reminder of the realities of managing that level of lorries and passenger traffic and its impact on the Dover community, the whole of the Kent community and goods and services for the entire country. That is why I do not think it is good enough to allow the entry-exit system implementation to continue to be discussed slowly at the comfortable pace of the respective officials on each side of the border. Discussions between officials have been going on for some time. We do not need more discussions; we need practical, operable solutions that work in a juxtaposed context.
The work needs to be stepped up. It is vital that the Government are proactive and energetic in their diplomatic engagement to move things forward at greater pace and to bring forward a solution, which is now a matter of urgency, not just for Dover but for the country as a whole. Border controls are an essential and central part of the effective trading environment at Dover. I am in Westminster Hall today because border controls are about to change in a matter of months, and how they will work in a juxtaposed control setting at Dover has still not been settled. Let me set out in some detail what the border controls are now and how they will change, and say why a practical and operable solution is urgently needed and vital.
Currently, there are special border arrangements to support frictionless trade and border security between France, Belgium and the UK under the Le Touquet agreement and the Canterbury treaty, which are not EU agreements but bilateral agreements between the respective nation states. Under them, each country’s entry checks are made before exit and not after exit. By way of example, the French border security team—police aux frontières, or PAF—operate as PAF in Dover and carry out entry checks before exit from the UK to France. Likewise, the UK Border Force operates in Calais and carries out entry checks before exit from France to the UK.
I am sure that many of us, if not all of us, who are here today have experienced this system, which has been in place for many years, perhaps at Dover, or at St Pancras when taking the Eurostar. It is often the starting point for that fun family moment when someone says their first, “Oui, monsieur. Merci,” and when the smaller ones are encouraged to practise their polite manners in French.
That approach has been implemented for a very serious reason. It has been extremely successful in maintaining frictionless trade and in tackling people smuggling and other criminal activities at each of our borders. That is an approach and an agreement that has continued post-transition from the EU and it works very well.
Moving forward, both the UK and the EU will bring in digital borders, but not at the same time. The EU digital borders system—the European entry-exit system, or EES controls—is due to become operational in less than 12 months’ time. The UK equivalent is scheduled for 2024-25. That is really too far away and it is vital that our own UK digital borders programme is accelerated. We must not fall behind and we need to ensure that we are ready.
These new EES rules are part of Europe’s smart borders system, which will require biometric checking for every individual each time they cross an EU external border. The UK is such an external border and a third country for the purposes of these controls. There are further parts of the smart borders system to follow, including the European travel information and authorisation system, or ETIAS, which is in effect a new priority partner short-visa system for the non-Schengen countries, which include the UK. ETIAS is also due to come in in 2022.
In due course, as I have said, the UK will have its smart borders system, which will accordingly require changes in France, Belgium and other countries. The problem with the EES, to put it at its simplest, is that it has been designed for airports, by which I mean individual foot passengers. It has not been designed for people travelling in groups, it has not been designed for people travelling in vehicles and it has certainly not been designed for gateways operating juxtaposed controls.
The current EES design requires every driver to be stopped and every passenger to have their biometrics submitted and recorded either in or outside the stationary vehicle or in a purpose-built facility. In practical terms, what does that mean? At the moment, it would mean every passenger and every driver stopping and getting out of their vehicle in live lanes of heavy traffic in a port that manages the greatest number of vehicle movements in the United Kingdom every single day. That is not just impractical and dangerous—it simply will not work.
The matter was raised with the Home Secretary at a recent Kent MPs meeting with her, and it remains urgently important to resolve. It has been raised repeatedly by Kent MPs over the year with the Home Office, the Cabinet Office and the Department for Transport, as well as being raised by the port of Dover, Getlink—which runs the channel tunnel—and other operators. The House of Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee has also expressed concern in its letter to the Home Secretary on 22 November 2021—so a very short time ago—about unpreparedness. It raised concerns that there could be sustained delays and disruption. The Committee specifically highlighted concerns about traffic and trade disruption, which could occur on the short straits if the operational issues are not satisfactorily, and speedily, resolved.
To date, we, and the port of Dover, have struggled to establish where the ministerial lead sits, whether that is in the Cabinet Office or the Home Office, so I am pleased to see the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) here today. These issues require close working between the Home Office and the Cabinet Office, and they may, indeed do, require a greater degree of diplomatic engagement to accelerate and bring forward operational solutions.
The port of Dover is the most successful port of its kind in the UK. More than £144 billion-worth of freight is transported through the port each year. It accounts for a third of all UK trade with the EU, supporting thousands of local jobs in Dover and Deal and hundreds of thousands of jobs across the UK. The port of Dover is a national asset that has a huge role to play in post- Brexit global Britain. What Dover and the short straits do simply cannot be replicated elsewhere. That success has been built on trade running smoothly. That success has continued post-Brexit.
We need to see that success continue with necessary decisions and investment, including upgrading the A2 and planning for the EU's new digital borders system when it becomes operational next year. With the clock ticking, it is now urgent that the Government sharpen their focus on implementing the new digital borders system seamlessly in a juxtaposed context. Otherwise, they risk big delays at the port, travel chaos in Kent and real damage to the British economy. It is a Brexit consequential in that the relationships to discuss and resolve have changed along with leaving the EU, and therefore it is an issue that ought to be properly funded, in whole or in part, from the transitional funding arrangements.
As with other transitional arrangements, the consequences of an operable solution not being found could place the whole of Kent at risk of traffic management gridlock, and leave the country and its businesses short of supplies. It is therefore of utmost importance to our country, county and East Kent that the operational, legal, diplomatic and practical solutions for EES and ETIAS are resolved as soon as possible. We have navigated the Brexit transition so successfully, but it would be extremely damaging for the EES issue to result in exactly the adverse outcome for traffic, the community and the country that we have sought to avoid, and have avoided—namely gridlock in Kent, and goods and trade disruption across the UK. It is vital that the issue is now progressed at pace and with urgency. This important issue will have huge implications for my constituents and residents across Kent, as well as the wider British economy, if it is not effectively and properly addressed at the earliest opportunity.
I will conclude by asking my hon. Friend the Minister several questions that would help the port of Dover and ferry operators, as well as hauliers and trade manufacturers, to understand how the system will work in practice. First, when is the target date for detailed guidance on the operational framework for the new arrangements expected to be available from the current Border Force and PAF discussions? Secondly, will hauliers have to stop and exit their cabs at the frontier controls, and will tourists have to exit their cars and coaches? If so, how will the consequential public safety concerns, and the inevitable delays that will result, be managed? Thirdly, what consideration has been given to forms of pre-clearance away from the port—whether on the factory floor, at the departing place of manufacture, at service stations or at border facilities, such as those at Sevington, Ashford and the White Cliffs Dover site?
Fourthly, do the checks need to be made physically by the frontier police, or can they be made by a remote entry system? Fifthly, what is the current state of discussion with France and/or the EU on EES and ETIAS implementation? Sixthly, given the state of current discussions, what do Ministers hope will be the eventual outcome or agreement, and within what timescales? Seventhly, does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that a successful outcome is in the interests of the EU and France as much as the UK, because frictionless trade and strong borders result in the freest trade and the greatest mutual benefit? Finally, does he agree that this should be paid for as part of the post-transitional Cabinet Office budget or another borders budget, instead of potentially needing to be paid for by the port and ferry operators?
I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Minister may not have all the answers to those questions to hand. Indeed, that is the reason for requesting this vital and urgent debate. Will he meet me and Kent colleagues in the first week of January, so that we can now make rapid and determined progress to resolve this issue? Finally, will the Minister join me in congratulating the port of Dover on its immense contribution to the nation, and on the excellent and efficient operations that it runs for the benefit of UK plc?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke) for securing the debate, and to other colleagues for attending it.
This is clearly a topic of some importance, and I welcome the opportunity to set out the Government’s understanding of the current position. The EU’s entry-exit system, which I will henceforth refer to as the EES for brevity, is a new means of collecting identity and travel document data and registering entry and exit records to and from the Schengen area. The introduction of the EES will affect non-EU citizens travelling into the EU’s Schengen zone. Furthermore, on routes where juxtaposed controls are in operation, such as at the port of Dover, EES checks will be undertaken by French officers prior to departure from the UK.
I have to make it clear that as a Schengen border measure, the design and implementation of the EES is a matter for the EU member states. The UK Government do not determine the rules for it, and Border Force will not administer it or be involved in its enforcement. However, as outlined by my hon. Friend, the UK clearly has an interest in its efficient implementation and operation due to the potential impacts on passengers travelling from the UK into the EU, particularly in terms of freight operations across the short straits. As mentioned, we, too, have ambitious plans for the border in order to maintain our focus on balancing fluidity and security with the future implementation of the ETA scheme. That will particularly be the case on routes that operate juxtaposed controls, as checks for the EES prior to departure from the UK will be undertaken at the Eurotunnel entrance in Dover, and at St Pancras here in London. Similarly, ETA checks will be undertaken by Border Force before departure to the UK. It is therefore very much in our interest to work with our counterparts in the EU, as well as with port and transport operators, to identify the requirements and issues involved.
Today, passenger numbers remain a fraction of pre-pandemic levels in many instances, and we are aware that the return to normal volumes of passengers, coupled with increased checks, could have the potential to cause queues. The juxtaposed controls that we operate are a unique and valuable part of the border system. As has been said, they have been in operation in a variety of locations on rail and sea transport modes for almost 30 years: they enable secure checks to be made, and allow both ourselves and our partner countries to protect our borders. Those co-operative controls operate on UK soil, and we respect the fact that UK nationals who have abused the hospitality of our European neighbours by committing criminal offences are therefore not welcome to visit those countries again—and, similarly, the other way around. We are all working together to ensure that this is a success. Last year, we completed work with our international partners to successfully extend the arrangements to cover Eurostar services to and from the Netherlands, helping to cut down the overall journey times on this important route into the UK for the travelling public.
It is probably too early to quantify these changes exactly, but they will be a key consideration in discussions around how the EES is implemented by the relevant authorities. There are innovative ways to implement changes, such as those proposed under this new system, and we very much hope our French partners are as open to them as the UK was with the introduction of the very successful EU settlement scheme. Considerations over how much of this process can take place prior to arrival at the border are ultimately a matter for France and the European Commission. However, we remain open to discussing innovative approaches that take place on UK territory, as the UK was to the juxtaposed controls when they were introduced some decades ago.
Turning to the prospect of disruption, it will obviously be the responsibility of the police aux frontières to implement the checks on behalf of the EU member states. We are engaging with France with the aim of ensuring that the checks are implemented in a way that does not damage border throughput. Specific advice will be provided to the travelling public about the introduction of the EES with a view to increasing awareness of the new travel requirements and driving up compliance for both freight and non-freight travellers. However, to be clear, the requirements apply to the person travelling, not to goods and customs arrangements, which are separate and in place already.
I accept that any combination of near-normal levels of travel with the introduction of this new system could have quite a big impact. With people familiarising themselves not only with covid travel rules but with this new system, there could be queues, particularly at Dover. However, for many years there has been a productive working relationship between Border Force and its French counterparts to maintain flows at this key location, and we are constantly talking to them to try to make sure that we can continue to maintain flows, in the interests of both our nations—beyond the introduction of the EES.
I recognise that there is a particular challenge posed by passengers in vehicles. In line with our commitments, we will work with the implementing authorities to determine the infrastructure requirements, processes and procedures that result from the introduction of the EES. To reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Dover, practicality and safety considerations for passengers in vehicles are important elements to be agreed with our French partners. As she outlined, requiring all passengers to exit vehicles to register their biometric and biographic data would be hugely challenging, and we trust that our French partners will be open to exploring alternatives, especially given the obvious safety issues around requiring passengers to mix with active traffic flows at a busy port.
We have been engaging in this area to understand, in particular, what data the Schengen entry checks and the EES will look to secure. We understand that the biometric data to be captured is a facial photograph and four fingerprints, and that, for those enrolling for the first time, it must be captured under the supervision of a border official. Likewise, to counter fraudulent use, there will be a requirement for the supervision of any enrolment kiosks for all passengers. To be clear, this is something that will be in place at all entry points to the Schengen area; it will not be unique to entry from the United Kingdom. The juxtaposed controls present a particular situation, but also an opportunity, that we need to explore and resolve.
Last week, the European Commission announced that it is planning for the implementation of the EES in September. We of course want to finalise plans for the implementation under the juxtaposed controls that are based in the UK as soon as possible; however, we cannot set particular deadlines or timelines, given that it is all subject to further discussion with our French partners, who will operate them on behalf of the Schengen zone.
We recognise the port of Dover’s role as a key entry and exit point to and from the UK for a wide variety of time-sensitive goods, as well as passengers. Prior to the pandemic in 2019, it handled 1.2 million roll-on-roll-off units—more than all other ports serving mainland EU routes combined. It is also the UK’s largest international sea passenger port, handling nearly 11 million passengers in 2019. We are therefore fully committed to protecting this vital link, and that will be a key priority in our approach to assisting our partners in an effective implementation of the EES.
I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dover for securing the debate, and I join her in congratulating and thanking the port of Dover for the outstanding contribution to the economy that it facilitates through seamless daily trade with our European partners. I recognise the vital work that Dover Harbour Board undertook to complete a traffic management improvement project, which delivered an additional 4 km of freight holding capacity to help to keep traffic moving and better deal with traffic peaks. As the UK’s busiest roll-on-roll-off port, Dover is a recognised pressure point at the frontier and maintaining flow is a priority for UK customs planning, without compromising border security.
Across Government, officials will continue to engage with the port, the chamber of shipping and road hauliers to work through ways in which we can ensure that the border continues to be effective through 2022, with the staged customs controls coming to an end on 1 January and the prospect of the introduction of the EES in September 2022. It will have to be a cross-Government effort. I note the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Dover for a meeting with me. That meeting would almost certainly need to involve colleagues from the Cabinet Office, who take the lead on a number of the items that she highlighted in terms of the direct relationship with the European Union. To be clear, the Home Office’s role is very much on the operational side of how Border Force and the police aux frontières can come to sensible working arrangements on the ground that suit the shared interests of our two nations.
As I have a bit of time, and a colleague from north Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) is in the Chamber, for anyone querying what impact this may have on, for example, Holyhead to Dublin, the answer is none, because the Republic of Ireland is not in the Schengen zone. It is obviously part of the common travel area with the United Kingdom, and therefore routine immigration controls are not in place at Holyhead or Dublin in terms of entry to the UK; however, there are provisions for intelligence-led operations. To be clear, if people are wondering why we are focusing on Dover rather than mentioning other entry points from the European economic area, it is because the EES will not apply to travel between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, due to the common travel area and the Republic not being part of the Schengen zone.
The debate has been a useful opportunity to highlight and discuss the issues. I look forward to meeting my hon. Friend the Member for Dover and Cabinet Office colleagues to discuss some of the points that have been raised. Given that the decision process is going through the European Union and being implemented by French colleagues, I hope that she will understand that sadly I cannot give some of the answers today that I would be able to give were the UK Home Office deciding and implementing the process; however, I assure her that we are committed to doing whatever we can to make sure that the border functions effectively, not just when coming into the UK but when going out of it, because we recognise the strong impact that there will be if that is not the case, particularly in Dover.
Question put and agreed to.
Northern Ireland Protocol: Veterinary Agreement
[Christina Rees in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: Oral evidence taken before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on 21 April, 28 April, 16 June and 15 July 2021 on Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol, HC676.]
Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when not speaking in the debate, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. This can be done either at the testing centre in the House, or at home. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of securing a veterinary agreement in the Northern Ireland Protocol.
It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your auspices, Ms Rees, and I am delighted to speak on this really important issue.
I want to go back a little over two years and quote what the Prime Minister said when asked about form-filling as a result of the Johnson protocol, which he paraded as a triumph of his negotiating skills. He told the world:
“If somebody asks you to do that, tell them to ring up the Prime Minister and I will direct them to throw that form in the bin…There will be no forms, no checks, no barriers of any kind. You will have unfettered access.”
Two years have gone by. If it were two days, perhaps we would all say, “Let’s just wait and see.” If it were even two weeks or two months, we might say, “We’ll give the Prime Minister a chance to negotiate a solution.” But two years is outrageous.
This debate is not about the Johnson protocol, about which I know those hon. Members present have different views. I say to my friends in the Democratic Unionist party that the majority of people in Northern Ireland are in favour of the protocol, but I know that there are serious doubts about it. This debate is not about the protocol but about the operation of the protocol, an issue on which there is widespread agreement in Northern Ireland.
The situation in Northern Ireland at the moment is quite dangerous. It is building up tensions and concerns, and is possibly being manipulated to the extent that the loyalist community in particular fear for their future. That is why it is irresponsible that, two years on, we have no solution.
The sanitary and phytosanitary controls, which will come fully into operation at some point, are already having an impact, but it is important to acknowledge the very welcome grace periods for chilled meats and medicines. Lord Frost told the Lords last week that he expects those grace periods to continue at least until the end of the year and beyond if negotiations are constructive. Does the Minister expect the grace periods to continue? That really does matter.
Export health certificates have already come into operation for goods being transported from Great Britain to the European Union, and from GB to Northern Ireland. Aodhán Connolly, convenor of the Northern Ireland Business Brexit Working Group, told both the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and the International Trade Committee that there is no food shortage—that has to be acknowledged—but that not everything is perfect. Big supermarkets in Northern Ireland usually stock between 40,000 to 50,000 lines; in the worst case there was a shortage of 600 lines, but in better cases the figure is in the tens. Therefore, there is no food shortage, but there are some specific shortages. A friend told me recently that she could not get flour or vanilla. Such things are important for some people, and we ought to acknowledge that there are shortages.
Of course, trade volumes are down. Earlier this year, pork sales from GB were down some 70%, and piglets were going to be slaughtered because farmers simply could not sell them on the open market. That was some time ago, but can the Minister provide an update on how trade has been affected. Even with the grace periods, and even though the export health certificates have come into operation only recently, the reality is that the volume of sales has gone down. I have heard very different estimates, so it would be helpful if the Minister could update us?
Under the SPS regime there is a need for forms and documents. Vets have to certify the fitness of animals, either live or slaughtered, and there is a certification process for food products as well. Vets also have to check the registration number of vehicles, to guarantee that they are the same ones that originally carried the food. We do not know exactly how that will work for GB to Northern Ireland. We do know, however, how it works for GB into the European Union, because at the port of Dublin there are physical checks on 4% to 5% of goods, and documentary checks on up to 30%. That is a major barrier to trade for GB producers.
The chief veterinary officer for Northern Ireland says that they need 27 vets to do the checking work that will now be required at the ports, but only half that number are available. There is a real question for the Minister about the number of vets available—not simply at the ports in Northern Ireland, but across GB—to ensure that GB producers can sell to Northern Ireland.
There is already a cost to us in Great Britain and to the EU, and this does not just apply to Northern Ireland. Welsh lamb and Scottish fishery products are also affected, as are the processed foods that the whole of Great Britain sells in considerable numbers. There are, however, real questions, which my Northern Ireland colleagues will want to hear addressed, about whether GB producers will consider it worth selling to Northern Ireland in particular. Supply chains already face challenges and the biggest issue is that of uncertainty. I do not know how much of an answer the Minister will be able to give us but, two years on, producers still have uncertainty hanging over them and are asking whether it is reasonable for them to sell to a relatively small market in Northern Ireland when the alternative is simply not to go through the hassle involved.
I thank the hon. Member for introducing the debate. The very point that he is making is one that is obvious to us. Certainly for my party, including my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart), who is sitting here beside me, the problem is one not only of cost but of bureaucracy, and people are just turned off. In the past they had a simple system allowing them to bring stuff from the UK mainland to Northern Ireland, but suddenly there are all these difficulties. One quick example is the seeds sector for plants and flowers. If someone wants to buy a wee packet of seeds, there is an added £10 or £15 charge, which is ridiculous for a seed packet that costs about £2.50.
The hon. Member is absolutely right. It is possible to transport used farm equipment without the need for many checks, and yet a packet of seeds, which is produced in a controlled way, has to have that bureaucracy and those checks, so he is right to be concerned. The central point is that is the bureaucracy that is frustrating for businesses in Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
There is a question for the Minister about the uncertainty. Traders have told us that the trader support service is working well. I am sure that is true, but they also make the point that an education process is needed for producers in Great Britain. How far along are we in securing that process of public education?
As I have said, the damage is already here and now. The sheep industry in Northern Ireland, for example, faces scrapie controls, which means that it will be three years before some sheep farmers can sell their goods into the GB market. Cattle breeders also face uncertainty because of the new regulatory regime. That is not because they move cattle—generally they move fertilised products and suchlike—but because they cannot plan for the future. That is disastrous for the agricultural industry.
The chief executive of Lynas Foodservice, the biggest food processor in Northern Ireland, has pointed out that there are eight different bureaucratic processes to bring mozzarella from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. He estimates that it will cost the business some £50,000 a year to service that requirement. It can do that because it is big, but a small producer cannot compete with that, so supply is going to be a real issue.
The Conservative manifesto was clear—I hope there is still common ground on this—that there would be no
“compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.”
I hope the Minister will repeat that commitment, because I know it is the mantra that the Government insist on. If that is true, it should be very easy for us to move towards an SPS veterinary agreement. The CBI has talked about the need for a
“bespoke, modern UK-EU Veterinary Agreement”,
specific for Northern Ireland within the context of the protocol. That is supported by Retail NI, the Ulster Farmers Union and every party represented in Stormont. Oddly, it is one of the things that everyone agrees on—as well as that there should be no amnesty for those who committed murder during the troubles. It would be a great unifier if it was not such a negative thing. We should be able to get that agreement.
The Secretary of State for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said in February that the Government want to work on a veterinary agreement so that they can secure the flow of goods and improve the forms. Amen to that. The EU Vice-President told us that a veterinary agreement was “on the table”. Everybody is in favour of it, so what is stopping us? One thing that is stopping us—and the Minister has seen a way to address this—is the lack of trust and the lack of good faith that has been built up. The public diplomacy and rhetoric have been massively unhelpful. It is not something political or a shouting game, but that is what it has become. That has been very unhelpful and it has led to cynicism.
The Minister might want to say that the real ambition is to achieve a trade deal with the United States—not because that would compensate for the trade we have lost with the EU, but because it would allow the Prime Minister to stand up with the big banner headline and say, Donald Trump-style, “I have done a great trade deal”. That is not enough, however, if the price is lower food standards coming into our market, and it is certainly not enough if it prejudices our capacity to deliver a veterinary agreement that could make things easier. Ironically, even in the context of a US trade deal, President Biden has said that he sees no barrier to there being a veterinary agreement between the EU and the UK to protect the situation in Northern Ireland and the protocol.
There are two different models that we can look at. The first is probably a variation of the New Zealand deal, which I know is something that the Government have thought about. It has advantages. I have talked about between 4% and 5% of goods being subject to physical checks in Dublin. If the New Zealand example worked for us, that figure would go down to 2% and documentary checks would go from 30% to 10%. Those are still barriers, though, and the Minister should not underestimate that they would be real for businesses.
The other, much more attractive option is what the EU calls dynamic alignment. In actual fact, we are aligned at the moment. We have not moved our food standards, and nor has the EU. What people have talked about is the possibility of a temporary agreement, which could of course have a guillotine and could be terminated if we sign up to the Australian deal, the New Zealand deal or the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-pacific partnership. We could have a guillotine and move on, but let us have that temporary veterinary agreement, which would allow alignment and enable us to get rid of all the form-filling and other problems. That is the real thing we should play for. So, I ask the Minister, why not?
Well, to a degree we know why not—it is because Lord Frost has ruled it out, saying that he has grave doubts about how long it would take. Actually, that is nonsense—and I hope that the Minister in turn will also tell Lord Frost that it is nonsense—because it would take almost no time. It is the basis on which we were operating 12 months ago, and it would simply mean reverting to a reality already known to businesses in Northern Ireland, Great Britain and the EU.
If we can get this issue right, there is something enormous to be gained, because it would unlock not only the Northern Ireland protocol but the issues experienced GB businesses trading with the rest of the EU. That is something big and really important, and it would stop the erosion of trade.
My final point is that we need to move on to some form of trusted trader scheme. It ought to be easily achievable. It is not magic; it is a very easy thing to achieve. Of course it requires work but, two years on, that work should already have been done.
Perhaps what we really need is a trusted negotiator scheme, and perhaps that would not involve the current Prime Minister. That may sound trivial but this is a serious point, because as long as people play politics with this issue, they will get it wrong. If we can consider the needs of the people of Northern Ireland and the needs of businesses in both Great Britain and Northern Ireland, we can begin to come up with a real solution. It takes a little bit of imagination—not very much—but it takes a lot of political will, and that is what the Minister has to persuade us exists in the Government today.
It is a pleasure to make a contribution, Ms Rees.
I thank the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) for giving us a chance to participate in this debate. To be fair to him, I think that he and I know these issues. On the Northern Ireland protocol we have very different points of view, but this debate is about the difficulties that the Northern Ireland protocol has brought in through the veterinary agreement. So I will speak about that, because that is perhaps where we will find the unified approach—which I think is what we are trying to do—to overcome the problems.
I am so pleased once again to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), and the Minister; it is always a pleasure to engage with the Minister in debates in this Chamber.
I will also pay a special tribute to the spokesperson for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson). I had the opportunity to invite him to my constituency and I must say that it was a wonderful chance to engage with him. He himself had asked for such an invitation and I was very pleased to make it happen. He could find out what the Unionist people were saying and thinking, which gave him, as he told me himself, the chance to understand better the psyche of those of us in Unionism and what the key issues for us are. By the way, he is a very engaging person—I say that very honestly—and I know that all the people from my constituency who met him were certainly impressed by him. I will just put that on the record. I have said it to him before, but now it will be in Hansard for the future.
This issue is a very evocative one for me, for my party and indeed for a huge majority of the people I represent. I will give just one example of the Northern Ireland protocol working. To be fair, it is not a veterinary issue, but in just the last week parents and children have been inconvenienced at Christmas—not my grandchildren, by the way, but other grandchildren. To get their Barbie Dream House on Amazon, people have to pay an extra £35 to buy it in Northern Ireland. It is not just the inconvenience but, as the hon. Member for Rochdale said, the cost. It is almost as though £35 or £40 was just added on.
Here is another example. A lady who wanted to buy a rug for her horse made inquiries, as she did every year, about buying it on the UK mainland, and was shocked to find that its price had suddenly jumped from £40 to £65. She was quite annoyed at having to spend the extra money; and when she agreed to pay the extra £25, she was then informed that they would not send the rug anyway—the paperwork and the bureaucracy was so great. That was a veterinary issue for a person who has horses and understands those issues—great difficulties.
To be fair, the Minister understands the issues; we will not be telling the hon. Lady anything that she does not already know, but these are our frustrations about the protocol. These issues are not just inconvenient for business people; they are challenging the viability of their very businesses, from those who cannot supply motor parts, parts for lawnmowers or parts for mobility scooters, to the businessman whose supplies have been cut by over a third because of paperwork.
The hon. Member for Rochdale referred to tractors and machinery, and I will provide some examples from my constituency. Tractors must be scrupulously cleaned. If they have any mud or muck on them they cannot come across, even though, on 31 December 2020, that was perfectly acceptable. Did the world change on 1 January 2021? This makes me think that it did. Although we obviously cannot see the change, the EU certainly found a reason to change. The central theme of my speech will be the EU’s attitude and the obstructions that it is putting in place in relation to this issue.
The Northern Ireland protocol is affecting every aspect of life, and as we have said before—and I must put it on record because it is our party’s position—it has to go. It is not fit for purpose; it is massively affecting the quality of life, the cost of living and the rights of people in my constituency of Strangford and across the whole of Northern Ireland. I could, although I will not, speak for days on this issue. Everyone would say, “Look: it’s getting dark, Jim.” I will not do that, but there are so many examples that I could cite to reinforce the points that the hon. Member for Rochdale has made. I am sure that all of my comments on this topic in the House could well amount to a day’s worth—I, at least, definitely sometimes felt as though I was going on for days and days. The reason that I did so, and will continue to do so, is simple: the protocol is unfair, discriminatory and constitutionally unacceptable.
I turn to the specifics of today’s debate, to which the hon. Member for Rochdale referred and about which I want to speak. I contacted the Ulster Farmers Union—I declare an interest as a member of the union—and they have said that we must have a veterinary agreement immediately to survive this impasse. So that is the Ulster Farmers Union, which represents the majority of farmers in Northern Ireland—not all, because, I believe, the Irish Farmers’ Association has a lot of members in the west of the Province. The Ulster Farmers Union said:
“A veterinary agreement could remove up to 80% of checks and documentation that would otherwise be needed. It will support the agri-food and retail industries as well as farming and will keep prices low and choice high for NI families…even a time-limited agreement would assist us in the short and medium term and provide some relief to the current pressures—both trade and social.”
The Ulster Farmers Union has a very large membership. All of my neighbours in the Ards peninsula—I live on a farm as well—are members. That is not just because the insurance premiums are fairly keen but because, in all honesty, it represents us very well.
Farmers cannot wait for further machinations as the Government attempt to reason with the unreasonable. It has been made abundantly clear by the treatment of the European Commission and the manner in which Unionist people are spoken of in those circles that this protocol is not a matter of practicality for the EU; for them it is a matter of pride. They are out to beat us and are using the Northern Ireland protocol as a method to do that. Their pride was hurt, and the saying that hurt people hurt other people is true here.
I have to put on record my disquiet and anger at the tone and the methodology of the EU and how they have treated us. They are determined to inflict as much pain on the Brits as they look upon it. I would just say this: I am a Brit. I am very proud to carry a British passport. I am very proud to be a member of this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. When they attack the Brits, they are attacking us as well, so I feel quite angered at how the EU have gone at this. We are not to be the conduit to inflict that pain.
I have two more examples—no more, because they all illustrate the same issue over and over. In his introduction, the hon. Member for Rochdale referred to the movement of cattle. I have been incredulous to hear some of these things. My farmers on the Ards peninsula have cows of a very high pedigree. They sell their bulls and cows all over the United Kingdom. This year, some of them phoned me as they were taking their bulls to market. These bulls are worth about £20,000 or £25,000 on the market when they take them across to the mainland and to Scotland. They informed me that if they went to the market sale on the mainland and they did not perchance happen to sell that bull or cow, they would have to then apply for a licence to keep there the bull or cow that they were hoping to sell. It would have to stay in quarantine for five to six weeks. Fortunately, they did sell them, but the possibility of not selling them meant that the cost factor arose, and that is something that I have great concerns over. The situation is affecting agriculture. It is affecting cattle. I am very concerned.
My hon. Friend is making extremely valid points and has raised a number of issues. Daily, businesses highlight to us that they cannot get seed potatoes into Northern Ireland; we cannot get approval for plant protection products; more recently, the Woodland Trust cannot bring its community tree packs into Northern Ireland for the Queen’s Green Canopy because it creates some sort of a risk. How is a tree coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland a risk? It is not; it needs sorted.
I have sympathy with what is being proposed here today. A common SPS area would be beneficial. However, it does not deal with the protocol regulations in their entirety. The message today, if my hon. Friend agrees, is that the protocol needs to go. It needs to be fixed, and it therefore needs to go in its entirety. We need to enter new negotiations and try to get a sensible, common-sense way forward.
I thank my hon. Friend and colleague for that intervention. I absolutely agree. I know this debate is about the machinations of the protocol, but we are very clear where we stand. We are against the protocol per se, for the reasons covered in this debate, but also for reasons far beyond them.
My hon. Friend has stolen two of my examples. The first was seed potatoes. Speaking in a debate here last week, the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) mentioned seed potatoes, where there are clear issues for us. My hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) has been very much at the forefront of trying to address some of those issues. The seed potato sector in Northern Ireland was doing great, but it has lost its way because of the Northern Ireland protocol and veterinary issues.
On the trees, it seems unrealistic that we cannot get in Northern Ireland the trees that the Woodland Trust and others are planting on behalf of schools across the rest of the United Kingdom—in England, Scotland and Wales. Really? They were okay on 31 December 2020, but they did not seem to be okay on 1 January 2021.
I will give another example. I shall not go on too long about this, but I want to have it on the record. One of my constituents from Ballygowan in Strangford bought three horses from England in February or March this year. She was not aware that there would be any problems for them to come over, but when she got them to the harbour she was told she could not bring them in, even though the papers, pedigrees and licences on medical health were all right. She could not bring them in because of the veterinary arrangements in the Northern Ireland protocol. They were held in quarantine for five to six weeks. Only on the intervention of our colleague, Edwin Poots, the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, were they released from quarantine at the harbour to their new home in Ballygowan. Frustration does not get where we are on this.
I said at the start that we in Northern Ireland were being used as a stick to beat the British for daring to leave the EU. Nothing said or done since has altered that opinion. The path forward is clear—I put it on the record. It is to trigger article 16. Do it sooner rather than later; do it right away. The conditions have been met and these intensive talks, which were make or break, are now two months down the line. I am not involved in those negotiations, which may be a good thing, but something is glaringly obvious to those of us on the sidelines. The insulting play for power is not to be borne by us in Northern Ireland any longer. It cannot be borne any longer by anyone.
I thank everyone for their patience, and I will conclude with this. I am aware that discussions are ongoing but progress is not. In the absence of any clear progress, I believe—I say this with respect—that the Government are left with no option other than to trigger article 16. Fulfil your word. Refuse to be made fools of by the Europeans for one second longer. Bring Northern Ireland back from the sidelines and into the fold once more. I believe that “Grin and bear it” is no longer an option. I urge Government and my Minister to make the right choice. I know it may not be the Minister’s choice on the protocol, but I hope it is on the veterinary issue. Make it quick; enough is enough. Stop the toing and froing, knock the protocol on the head and make a final decision that the protocol can no longer rise again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I thank the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) for bringing the debate and for his long-standing and genuine commitment to achieving good outcomes for Northern Ireland. I know that is a common cause for many hon. Members across the House, for which we are grateful.
Divergence and potential divergence on veterinary and SPS arrangements is the reason for the vast majority of checks between Britain and Northern Ireland since Brexit. Stripping out the politics, it is worth saying that the island of Ireland has always been counted as one single epidemiological and veterinary unit. That long predates Brexit and has offered protection for biodiversity, agri-foods and farming generally. Hon. Members will remember that foot and mouth disease did not ravage the island of Ireland because we were protected by those checks.
I will defer as always to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on farming matters—South Belfast is not a farming constituency—but moving organic material in the form of soil had not been allowed before Brexit, because of the SPS arrangement. Those high quality standards have offered protection and given a unique selling point to Northern Ireland farmers and producers for many years. That is what we do: we produce high-quality goods and sell them to people who wish to buy high-quality goods. As far as I am aware, there is no demand to drop those standards. For what it is worth, I do not see demand to drop those standards in Britain, either.
I am a member of the UK Trade and Business Commission, which has MPs from across the House, including from the Democratic Unionist party. Over the last year, we have heard evidence on all sorts of trading and business issues from all sorts of sectors. The clear message from a range of businesses is that they value those high standards and do not want to drop them. People say that we will have higher standards in Britain—knock yourself out. It is a bit like going to a museum where the minimum donation is £5. If someone wants to put £20 in there, that is absolutely fine. The minimum standards can still be agreed, and Britain can exceed them if it wants to. So it is genuinely perplexing to me that the UK Government would not consider a veterinary arrangement. The EU even offered to sunset it, so that in a few years, when Britain worked out what it wanted from Brexit, that agreement could dissolve and a different set of arrangements could exist. Genuinely, I can only put that decision down to ideological reasons, because I do not see a demand for it from UK businesses or consumers.
As for our obeying these rules until new year’s eve and the question of what the difference is now, the difference is that the UK spent five years saying, “We don’t play by anybody’s rules,” so it is difficult now to get everybody to stick by particular rules. This is not the time or place—Christmas is coming—to get into the minutiae of global trade rules, but it is around having an identifiable set of rules and it is around preventing a thousand cliff edges. If on 1 January the UK says it will no longer adhere to a standard on soil and on 2 January says it will no longer adhere to a standard on the temperature of cows or whatever, we will create cliff edge after cliff edge. In the absence of a set of rules, businesses cannot possibly compete.
I thank the hon. Lady for her measured delivery of that point. The issue may not be as clear as she refers to. The soil was okay at Hillmount Nursery in my constituency before 31 December, and it was no different afterwards. The issue was not that the UK or Northern Ireland were going to do anything different. We want to obey the same rules. So the rules were there that we were going to adhere to.
The point is that the UK has made it very clear that it will not sign up to commit to those rules. That is fundamentally the issue—that the UK has not agreed, as a continuum, to adhere to those rules. Yes, obviously the soil has not changed over the new year, so I understand some of the frustrations, but those could be addressed by exactly the sort of veterinary arrangement that the hon. Member for Rochdale suggests, and that businesses across the UK have been suggesting. It is perplexing to me that all of the parties across the board in Northern Ireland did not get together to call for that, because at different times all of them said that an SPS arrangement would be acceptable. That unanimity and that consistency of message from Northern Ireland’s political representatives would have been very powerful.
In the absence of that SPS arrangement, which I would love to see, the protocol is the show in town at the moment. It is nobody’s first choice; nobody loves it; nobody would have designed it. It is a bit like that thing about getting directions in Ireland—“I wouldn’t start from here,” and you would not start from the protocol, but the reality is that all the other options have been taken off the table. I genuinely understand the frustration and confusion of constituents and consumers, reflected by the hon. Members for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) and for Strangford. They say that all of a sudden the rules are different, but that is because of Brexit, which in every way was always going to mean barriers. Brexit is, by definition, a set of trade barriers. That is why some of the rules have changed. In Northern Ireland, businesses were clear before the referendum that they were very happy with the status quo—being able to trade north, south, east and west.
The hon. Lady makes a valid point. Some of the regulations and rules brought in at this point in time are Brexit-related. However, will she not accept that more are actually protocol-related? Had NI left the EU on the same grounds as GB, we would not be in this position and would not be dealing with issues such as seed potatoes, the Queen’s canopy and all the others listed here today.
I am happy to remind the hon. Member. It is all over Hansard and in TV clips. I think it was one Mr Boris Johnson and one Lord David Frost. I believe that at Christmas-time they told us that it was oven ready and ready to go, but it was clearly not. These are all consequences that flowed from a series of decisions.
As I say, business did not want to change the status quo. Businesses outlined their preferences for any solution that would mean no barriers in either direction. The Social Democratic and Labour party and I personally campaigned exhaustively over those five years, begging those people who were voting to not choose a solution that created a barrier either between north and south or east and west. Not alone did no business I have ever met want to choose between their trade with the single market and their trade with the GB market, but because we are a fragile and interdependent region that was always going to create the perception of winners and losers. That will have come to pass.
Members will be aware of some of the sporadic unrest that was seen in and around Belfast in the spring. For what it is worth, I think it was fairly contrived. Riots and bus burnings that switch on and off like an appointment are not very organic. I say that having spent all my life in a fragile region. I think they were part of a campaign to project an aura of chaos. I really felt for one young man, who was arrested at the riots in April and quoted on BBC TV. He said, “I don’t know what the protocol is, but my leaders keep telling me I am losing.” That is at the root of this Brexit problem. It created a barrier in one direction and created the perception of winners and losers.
Unfortunately, the protocol has been spun by many not to be a consequence of a series of decisions that the UK made for its own reasons. It is fair enough; they are a sovereign Government and are entitled to make decisions, but the perception has been given that it was because of Dublin or the EU. I have had the police round twice at my door with death threats because people have been told, “She brought you the protocol,” when these are the consequences of the UK’s decisions. Unfortunately, that is what we are working around.
I do not love the protocol, but we are now in the business of trying to make it work. At the moment, there are a variety of discussions between the EU and the UK to talk about how we can make the operation smoother based on the reality of how it works. The fact is that if the two jurisdictions have a different trading and customs regime, a border will have to go somewhere. That has been a fact since long before the Brexit referendum. It says it all over leaflets that I spread in 2016: that border will have to go somewhere, and it will create the headache of all headaches for this region.
According to recent polls by Queen's University Belfast and the University of Liverpool, people are saying, “No, I want a different solution.” That is a consequence of years of misinformation and deflection. I want a different solution too, but there is not one. We have spent five years discussing all the different ways to skin this cat, and the protocol was the outcome. The Commission and the UK Government, in conjunction with business and civil society, are trying to work through and find a way that works best for businesses.
There are a lot of challenges for businesses. There is no doubt about that. Brexit equals friction, and friction equals cost for business. Particularly for very small businesses that are moving low-value items and do not have a procurement or logistics department or whatever, it is worth saying that it has always been the case that there are different costs for some businesses between Britain and Northern Ireland. I have numerous examples. I become the most Unionist little warrior on Amazon when somebody tries to charge me a big fee. I have many email exchanges long predating 2016 where GB businesses are saying, “If is going to the highlands and islands, then it is going to be a different price.” I say, “No. It should be subject to the same rules.”
That issue predates Brexit. It has gotten worse after Brexit—there is no doubt about it—but that is a consequence of the failure of the UK Government to explain and prepare GB businesses for the changes that were going to come their way. That I am aware of, there is not one single product that is unavailable now in Northern Ireland. I hope my children do not read Hansard, because I am the Santa at home. I, too, have been trying to procure items for three children, and there was nothing I could get here that I was not able to get in Northern Ireland.
No, my children are not seed potato fans. As I said, we are dealing with a series of responses—the consequences of the UK’s decisions and, as I said, they are the UK’s decisions. I do not agree with them. It is very clear that people in Northern Ireland wanted something different. That is a fact. I do not want to get into—we are talking about the practical issues and I am aware that it is difficult to divorce the practical, the emotional, the political and the constitutional, but the discussions under way are about tackling the practical outcomes of the pandemic.
However, there will be differences for Northern Ireland—that is a fact. We have always been a different SPS zone. Even those people who were behind the alternative arrangements commission, and all of those kind of Brexiteer leading lights, have been very clear that there will always need to be some form of protocol to address that situation.
I will not get into all of the issues around consent, but the people of Northern Ireland rejected Brexit and, at every subsequent election, they have chosen parties that reject Brexit and want to try to find a way to make it work for our particular circumstances. That has been very clear in poll after poll; even among those who voted for Brexit, many of them do not want Brexit on exactly the same terms as people on this island. People want that dual market access.
I will briefly address that. There are huge opportunities for Northern Ireland, which has not had a unique selling point in many decades, to trade equally into the UK single market and into the EU single market. That could create jobs, create prosperity and change our futures. The founder of our party, John Hume, said, many times, that the best peace process is a job. We finally have the opportunity to say to businesses, from wherever, that if they want to have a foot in both markets, Northern Ireland should be the place to invest.
However, investors need stability. They need clear rules and to know that there will not be unrest about all of those things. Businesses are very clear that this situation is not perfect, but they have solutions—they have ways to try to make it work. They do not talk about trusted traders, but they talk about data-based solutions. They are also very clear that they do not want the hard Brexit that Britain has; they do not want article 16 to be triggered. They know that it is not the silver bullet that it has been presented as, and that it just brings us back to the table, which is where we are now.
Brexit was always going to be bad news for Northern Ireland. It was always going to insert all of the difficult things for us—sovereignty, identity and borders—into our everyday conversations. That is driving real polarisation. Sovereignty is different in Northern Ireland because people voted for the Good Friday agreement 23 years ago, and it does not operate in the same hard way as it does in other nation states. The protocol, imperfect though it is, is how we will chart our course through this situation.
It is important that the EU and the UK can get around to the solutions. What people in Northern Ireland want, more than anything, is to not have to talk about this any more—not have to turn on the radio and hear this all day long, all year long. The only way to ensure that is to make the protocol work and agree that these are the choices that were made by the people of Northern Ireland and by the UK Government, and to try to make them work.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I thank the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) for securing the debate, and for the interest that he has shown. I see that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is not with us at the moment, but I would like to also thank him for his generous tribute. I learned many things on my visit to Northern Ireland, and perhaps one of the most important ones was that, even though a Northern Ireland fishing boat is fishing just a few miles off the Scottish coast, by the time it has caught its haul of prawns and taken them back to Portavogie, it is a Portavogie prawn and has had its passport.
I also concur heartily with the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna), who I also met when I was in Northern Ireland. Her constituency is many things. It is very beautiful, in parts, but it is certainly not an agricultural constituency—I certainly did not run out of fingers and toes counting all of the tractors I saw on the Malone Road of a morning.
The very simple reason we are here is because of another one of those familiar three-word slogans, which are so beloved by the Prime Minister: “Get Brexit done”. Of course, what he could not admit at the time was that his particular manner of choosing to get Brexit done would create a trade and regulatory border right down the Irish sea. Those frictions, which are already there, are only set to increase when the UK has to begin enforcing sanitary and phytosanitary checks on imports to GB from the EU and Northern Ireland.
As the hon. Member for Belfast South said, quite accurately, that is happening as a result of the negotiating objectives that Her Majesty’s Government had at the time. The only rationale I can think of for having those objectives was the need to keep options open about the level at which we were willing to impose animal welfare and food standards, in order to open up the possibility of trade deals with other jurisdictions. I know that the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart), who made a couple of very telling interventions earlier, has to be on her way to get back home now. If she were still in the Chamber I would have said to her that, for all the issues around the Northern Ireland protocol, the terms on which the UK as a whole has left the European Union do not work for agricultural producers across the UK either. They certainly do not work for my constituents, and I represent a highly agricultural constituency in the north-east of Scotland. Simply put, the terms that we have agreed to are not working for us either.
While I take a keen interest in Northern Irish politics, I do not take any sides. Let me say that I do understand, I hope, and can sympathise with those in Northern Ireland who feel that they have been distanced or separated from Great Britain as a result of the manner in which we left the European Union. Although I am very clear that a protocol is required, it does not need to be on the terms of the current protocol; if we are going to renegotiate the terms of whatever protocol is there, it has to be done in a constructive way that keeps in mind the objectives of all parts of our jurisdiction. I understand the importance of having seamless trade east to west, as well as north to south, on the island of Ireland. However, we cannot get away from the fact that the very reason that we no longer have that is a function of the choices made by the UK Government.
I am following the hon. Member’s speech very carefully. When he talks about the renegotiation of the protocol, even if that is desirable that will probably be a very long-term effort. Would he agree that what would be easier for his own constituents would be a SPS agreement that would allow GB trade from Scotland, England and Wales into the EU, and, of course, from GB into Northern Ireland? That is easy to achieve.
I agree with the hon. Member’s intervention, and if he will allow me, I will go on to develop some of the many reasons why I believe that to be the case. We should be looking for the most pragmatic solutions in the short term to minimise those self-inflicted obstacles that we now have to trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and also between Great Britain and the European Union.
Businesses have been calling for a veterinary agreement for as long as the Brexit deal has been in place; it is now more important than ever that we get one. Before I was elected to this place I was a local authority councillor. One thing that we had blinking aggressively on our radar was that if there was a no-deal Brexit or something like that, the sheer amount of pressure that would be put our environmental health officers and local vets to try and provide export health certificates to be able to certify goods that were of an appropriate standard for export would be huge. We could not just wave a magic wand a create these environmental health officers overnight. They need a bachelor of science degree, I understand, which takes at least three years, and then they need two years of practical experience on the job. It takes five years from when someone walks through the doors of whatever institution they are studying at until they can sign off their first consignment of fish from Peterhead market. We were very worried about that, and those fears have not gone away.
I find it very difficult to disagree with James Withers, the chief executive of Scotland Food and Drink, when he said at the UK Trade and Business Commission’s session on the UK-EU TCA:
“A veterinary agreement is the single most important step that could be taken to improve exports to the EU, red meat and seafood, two of our most important animal product exports, are caught in a tsunami of bureaucracy and paperwork.”
Let us consider some of the evidence. For a dairy in Galloway in the south-west of Scotland—famed rightly for the quality of its agricultural produce, particularly in the dairy sector—it is easier to export a shipping container of ice cream to South Korea than it is to send a block of cheese across to Northern Ireland to somebody who wishes to buy it. Our food and drink exports to the EU were down 16% at the start of the year, and over the first half of the year they dropped by almost half. Filling out the additional forms that are required takes hours every morning, and businesses are incurring tens of thousands of pounds in additional costs to ensure that they comply with them. Some businesses need to hire customs agents that they did not before.
Adding to the delays are problems with the documentation, which is obviously very complex and takes a long time to fill out. If someone gets something wrong, it banjaxes the whole thing. Sometimes they need to fill out up to 80 pages of documentation compared with the one-page delivery note and invoice that went with shipping pre Brexit. We have heard the saga of seed potatoes. I have some seed potato growers in my constituency. Their standards were already the highest in the world, and they have not diminished, but because the UK is not prepared to sign up to the same level of obligation and standards, they are virtually unable to export to what were always their most productive markets, even though those markets are desperate for the disease-free quality that those potatoes can bring.
If there is an area crying out for pragmatism it is that multi-million pound trade. Europe needs our Scottish seed potatoes—we have always exported them—as does Ireland. There is a reason our producers did not take up the opportunity to export east of Aden despite being encouraged to do so: it is because it is so difficult to do that. They have had a ready market taken away from them. All it requires is a pragmatic realignment, which will once again allow that world-leading industry to get on with doing what it does best. Part of the problem will go away with an agreement on sanitary and phytosanitary standards. Such an agreement has widespread support. Back in June, the CBI was calling on both sides to negotiate a bespoke veterinary agreement, saying that it would end the friction that Brexit has caused, particularly to the food, drink and agri sector. The EU is clearly willing to sign up to such a deal; it has been signalling as far back as February that it would be open to signing that kind of bilateral deal with the UK.
I will cite a couple of business voices on how the matter is perceived in Northern Ireland. Richard Gray of the Carson McDowell law firm said that not one business has raised concerns about the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice or its role as the court of ultimate appeal under the Northern Ireland protocol; nor have any business organisations raised that issue on behalf of clients. Stephen Kelly, the chief executive of Manufacturing Northern Ireland, which represents 5,500 Northern Irish firms, has likewise said that not one of the businesses represented by it has raised issues with the ECJ position. He said:
“Everyone knows a treaty needs legal backup. There have been border problems with the rest of the UK”
but the ECJ is
“nothing but a Brexit purity issue”.
Again, I find that hard to disagree with.
I am sure that the noble Lord Frost has many estimable qualities, but as a negotiator he strikes me as the sort of person who seems to like to pour oil on troubled waters only to set fire to it later, when it suits his purposes to do so. The UK Government should look for pragmatic agreements, and focus on reaching agreements with the EU in this area. It is not just the UK that now has sovereignty; the EU has the sovereignty that it has always had, and nobody’s sovereignty should trump anyone else’s. It should be a pragmatic negotiation to achieve the best outcomes that we can.
The UK Government should focus on reaching the kind of agreement that businesses and the food industry are calling for, rather than focusing on artificial grievances that seem to be peripheral at best to the concerns of most people. The Government have a choice between ideological purity, and the accompanying impoverishment that it will cause for our businesses opportunities, or pragmatism. I dearly hope that the Minister will indicate that pragmatism is winning that battle.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Rees. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), who is an expert on this issue. He is a highly distinguished former Minister and shadow Secretary of State, among the many other roles he has carried out during his political career, so his words carry real weight. His introduction was exemplary and his critique was gentle and nuanced—I suspect I will be a little more aggressive, but I may make similar points.
The contributions from the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) and for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart), and the exchanges between them, were fascinating. In many ways, it was a résumé of the discussions we have, sadly, been having over many years. The almost intractable nature of some of the problems came out, but it is good that people are discussing them and pulling out the difficulties that we face as we try to find a constructive way forward. I was particularly struck by the idea that we would not start from here. Well, I do not think anybody would, and I have some sympathy for the Minister in trying to untie this knot at the end. These are not all problems of her making, but she is part of the Government so she bears the responsibility.
This is a hugely important issue for people in Northern Ireland, for the future of the United Kingdom and, as was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale, for trust in politics. Of course, it was the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), who famously said that no British Prime Minister would allow a border in the Irish sea. Sadly, it turned out that she was wrong. Despite all the promises, all the clever technical solutions and all the rest of it, the truth is that since the start of this year there have been additional checks. Despite the Northern Ireland protocol, life has been made much more difficult for everyone, which is why securing a veterinary agreement is such an important prize.
As others have said, a veterinary agreement would help not only the situation in Northern Ireland. Meat, dairy, fish and agrifood products accounted for over £11.3 billion of annual trade into the EU in 2019. Now, however, costly red tape in the form of burdensome SPS checks on every food and agrifood product entering the EU is costing British farmers, fishers and businesses dear, hampering their efforts to trade. Between 2019 and 2021, exports of beef to the EU fell by 37%, with a 34% fall in exports of cheese. Other products have been similarly affected, with a 19% drop in exports of milk, cream and chocolate. According to the Food and Drink Federation, this has led to almost £2 billion in lost sales. Its head of international trade, Dominic Goudie, commented:
“The return to growth in exports to non-EU markets is welcome news, but it doesn’t make up for the disastrous loss of £2bn in sales to the EU. It clearly demonstrates the serious difficulties manufacturers in our industry continue to face and the urgent need for additional specialist support.”
He is right.
The UK failed to secure an agreement on SPS standards with the EU, so each agrifood product entering the European Union has to be accompanied by an export health certificate costing £150 to £200, is subject to physical checks at ports of entry and requires veterinary sign-off. Exporters must also give EU border control posts advance notice of goods arriving—a process that The Guardian newspaper has estimated takes 26 steps. Full SPS checks are due to be introduced in 2022, risking the problem getting worse. The chair of the British Chambers of Commerce has said:
“it should not be the case that businesses simply have to give up on exporting to the EU”—
a point made earlier in the debate.
The fishing industry has warned that companies that have been around for 30 or 40 years and that relied on the export market are closing their doors, calling the experience “an unmitigated disaster”. Without an agreement on SPS standards, which the Government sought but failed to secure in the Brexit negotiations, British businesses and farmers face steep and permanent rises in the cost of trade.
For Northern Ireland, the deal the Prime Minister negotiated inevitably resulted in a barrier splitting our Union. This year has been miserable for many, with all the problems that we have read about and that people in Northern Ireland endured in the early months. There is a suite of regulatory checks on food products, including dairy, eggs, meat and other staples, and there is the vexed issue of chilled meat. Those checks are now a requirement on GB-NI trade. Once the grace periods expire—we were all glad to hear that they may continue—we will face costly EHCs and a requirement for vets to sign off the product. Some products, such as chilled meat, will likely be barred altogether. Given the flow of trade between GB and NI, that is the equivalent of having an international boundary on a main road. The chief executive of Northern Ireland’s largest food manufacturer, Lynas Foodservice, has been quoted giving the example of mozzarella cheese, which we heard earlier. He says that his business is often out of stock because of the wait for a vet to certify products.
Maybe all of this was an afterthought—maybe nobody considered it—but people in Northern Ireland have paid a high price for those rushed negotiations in the days before new year. I am sure the Minister recalls the phone briefing she did for Members to try to defend the Prime Minister’s ludicrous assertion that there were no non-tariff barriers. Like everything else, I am afraid, it did not survive the collision with reality on the ground.
It did not have to be like this. The UK’s negotiating position called for an SPS framework similar to that in the Canadian or New Zealand trade agreements. As we all know, the Conservative party manifesto said:
“we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards”,
so one might have expected something in any agreement to make sure that that happened. However, neither the UK-EU trade and co-operation agreement nor the Northern Ireland protocol includes a veterinary partnership agreement. That is failing Britain’s farmers, dividing our Union and undermining the trade that tens of thousands of businesses rely on.
That is not perhaps for want of trying. Back in February, the DEFRA Secretary committed to a veterinary agreement, saying:
“what we want to do, and we’re very open to do this, is to work on a Veterinary Partnership Agreement established under the FTA so we can get some easements and ensure goods can flow more smoothly and improve the forms.”
In April, the cross-party Select Committee specifically called for such an agreement as a priority. But here we are, almost a year on, still looking for it. We know that an agreement could reduce the mountain of red tape that businesses currently face, easing trade into the European Union, not just into Northern Ireland. Trade in food and drink amounted to over £14 billion last year and two thirds of that export market was in the European Union. That trade has been most affected by the new red tape.
The Conservative party manifesto promised to “increase trade and prosperity”, but the Government’s failure to agree common food standards, which are part and parcel of trade agreements around the world, is hampering British business. An agreement on common standards would reduce the friction and allow businesses to trade more freely with our largest export market. Currently, EU trade into Britain gets a free pass, while British businesses face costly burdens. An agreement on common veterinary standards would dramatically reduce the number of physical checks and streamline or remove altogether the costly paperwork requirements that so disrupt supply chains.
There is no shortage of organisations calling for an agreement. NFU Scotland has said:
“an agreement on equivalence on sanitary and phytosanitary trade standards...is critical to alleviate the problems of asymmetric trading”.
Glyn Roberts of Retail NI has said:
“veterinary alignment would take a lot of the hassle out of the food transit problem”.
The Northern Ireland Retail Consortium has called for a veterinary agreement to remove friction. The Ulster Farmers’ Union has backed such a move, saying:
“It would do away with a large percentage of the physical and documentary checks that are currently required, helping to ensure agri-food products and livestock can continue moving, flowing as freely as possible from GB to NI without extra complications and costs.”
I am afraid that the checks that the Prime Minister insisted on having down the middle of our Union are doing damage. He should get the agreement he promised on common food standards, which has overwhelming support in Northern Ireland. But that prompts the question, why can’t he? Why is it so difficult? I am afraid that—others have alluded to this—that the conclusion must be that the Government do not want to enter into an agreement that might reduce their scope to undermine the high food standards enjoyed in Britain in the trade deals they want to strike elsewhere. That is the truth of it. The Minister shakes her head, but burdensome regulation and red tape strangling our farmers and food producers are being exchanged for allowing cheap chlorinated chicken to flood our market.
Labour absolutely rejects that path. We are ambitious for this country and seek the highest food, environmental and welfare standards in the world. We need a veterinary agreement but frankly this Government are unlikely to achieve it. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale talked about having a trusted negotiator scheme. Well, I doubt that we could have one, because this Government are unable to maintain the trust of people in our own country, let alone in other countries. We may need a new Government to make that happen, and that cannot come soon enough.
It is lovely to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees.
I, too, thank the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) for securing this debate and I echo the words of the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner): we have heard a résumé of the discussions that we have had for the last few years about this difficult and sensitive subject. It is always good to hear the first-hand experience of the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Belfast South (Claire Hanna), and it is also interesting when those experiences are somewhat different, not least on the issue of Christmas present availability.
Let me explain what the UK Government are seeking in the negotiations. Our Command Paper published in July proposed a new model for GB to NI movements where the product stays within the UK. We agree that additional confidence could be provided by a well-designed SPS agreement. I think we all agree that that would be a helpful step forward. I reassure the House, regardless of what the hon. Member for Cambridge thinks, that that would obviously cover GB to NI agrifood movements and would set out where both UK and EU legislation provides for the same high standards. That absolutely should be taken as read. The Government stand by our manifesto commitment to standards.
As hon. Members know, we are still in the midst of technical discussions with the Commission to try to find satisfactory solutions on the Northern Ireland protocol. There is some precedent, as has been rehearsed, for the EU making such agreements with other countries—one that has been suggested this afternoon is that between the EU and New Zealand, which has been in place for many years—or as part of wider agreements with trading partners such as Canada or Switzerland.
In the trade and co-operation agreement negotiations last year, the UK put forward an SPS model based on equivalence. That would have been very similar to the model agreed between New Zealand and the EU. Sadly, the EU absolutely and repeatedly rejected the possibility of an agreement based on equivalence. Instead, it has pushed for the Swiss-EU style of SPS arrangement, which is based on dynamic alignment. An agreement based on dynamic alignment is not acceptable to us, as it would compromise our sovereignty over our own laws and impact on our ability to strike trade deals or agree trade facilitations with non-EU countries.
Does the Minister accept that the UK is a sovereign nation and that deciding—for the protection of all its businesses and particularly for the fragile area of Northern Ireland—to make sure there is no divergence between Britain and Northern Ireland and to have an SPS arrangement based on dynamic alignment would be a sovereign decision? That would be a decision of a responsible Government who said, “This is something we should do for all parts of the United Kingdom, for our businesses. This is a decision that we will make ourselves.” Is that not completely compatible with sovereignty? Otherwise, it is very, “I would do anything for Northern Ireland, but I won’t do that.” It is the act of a sovereign Government to act in the interests of all parts of their kingdom.
Dynamic alignment is not acceptable to this Government. The difficulty is that we are already starting to see some divergence. The hon. Member for Cambridge and I took part—oh, no, the hon. Gentleman was not there. One of his colleagues took part in an excellent debate earlier this week on getting rid of the VI-1 certification form for wine certification, which is an issue I have discussed with the hon. Gentleman on many occasions in the past.
We are in a position where our laws—not our standards, but our laws—have started to diverge from those of the EU. What we need to achieve, because of that, is an agreement that recognises the equivalence of mutual high standards, facilitates trade, reduces bureaucracy and maintains our regulatory autonomy. The VI-1 certification is just one of a very small number of issues on which we are starting to diverge. We need to start from where we are.
My dear deceased friend, Gerald Kaufman, once said, “Never kick a man until he’s down.” I appreciate that it is unfair to be kicking the Prime Minister at the moment of his maximum weakness—the Minister might not want to comment on that. But, seriously, is changing the VI-1 certification worth all the problems that we have heard about today? This is so trivial that I hope the Minister will say, “It isn’t worth it.”
Of course all of this is not worth it for VI-1. I merely mentioned the VI-1 certification as one very small example of changes that have been made in recent days. It popped into my head because we have been able to achieve that through a statutory instrument that was passed earlier this week. The point is that we need to achieve an agreement that recognises equivalence of standards. We do intend to diverge from EU regulations in ways that we probably have not even thought of yet.
I can give a few more current examples. There are some more onerous organics regulations that the EU is bringing in early in the new year, which we do not intend to copy. There is a position on gene editing, for example, where we as a nation are extremely keen to forge ahead and look at how that could help with our plant breeding, and the EU is somewhat behind us. There are probably many other examples where we need to achieve an agreement that recognises equivalence of standards, not necessarily complete alignment.
We continue to discuss the Northern Ireland protocol with the EU. We published our proposals in July, as the hon. Gentleman knows. In response, the EU published a series of papers in October. Its suggestions were to do with simplified certification and reduced checks for retail goods, which are designed only for sale to end consumers in Northern Ireland. Our analysis and wide engagement with the industry and consumers in Northern Ireland throws into question the level of actual simplification achieved by the EU Commission’s proposals.
To give certainty and stability to businesses while the discussions continue, the Government have announced that they will maintain the grace periods—the standstill arrangements—and continue to operate the protocol on the current basis. This will include extending the grace periods and easements that are currently in force. The aim is to provide a clear basis on which businesses and citizens can operate while we wait for the discussions to conclude.
We really welcome the EU’s recognition that there are serious problems that cannot be solved simply through the full implementation of the protocol. That was very much a change of position for the EU. We do not, however, think its proposals provide the solution. For example, they do not eliminate even one customs declaration. The 50% reduction in declarations that the EU Commission briefed to the media is actually a 50% reduction in the number of fields in the declaration, with the most burdensome ones still remaining and every movement still requiring an individual declaration.
There are still substantial gaps between our two positions. The proposals do not free up goods movements between GB and NI to the extent necessary for a long-term solution. Nor do they engage with the changes needed in other areas, such as subsidy policy, VAT and governance of the protocol, including the role of the Court of Justice. We still think the gaps can be bridged through further intensive discussions, and those are going on today, probably as we speak. Our preference is still to find a consensual solution that protects the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the everyday lives of people in Northern Ireland.
In order to make progress it is important that the discussions continue with energy and impetus. There are real difficulties, some of which we have heard about today. More than half the food moving from GB to NI currently benefits from easements, as we have also heard. When we started this in January we hoped that it was a temporary solution for GB to NI movements, and it should have opened the door for a more long-term solution. The EU’s paper does not provide for that. Owing to the additional certification required, movements of chilled meats between GB and NI declined by 95% between January and July this year.
As we have heard, there is a complete prohibition on moving seed potatoes from Scotland to Northern Ireland, as well as on some traditional varieties of GB trees, as we heard from the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart). Under the protocol, moving livestock and pets to and from Northern Ireland requires additional, unnecessary and costly certification and border checks. Our Command Paper proposal puts forward a simple and effective solution to all of these. The EU’s paper on SPS sees minimal movement from the full protocol requirements, and we hope that the EU will be able to move. That said, the EU’s proposals show that what had previously been considered impossible by the EU has become possible: the EU has accepted reduced checks and global certification for retail goods, for example. The proposals demonstrate that the EU is able to move beyond a rigid application of single market rules towards bespoke arrangements for Northern Ireland. We welcome this creativity and flexibility, which show that, with ambition and imagination, we will find a solution.
The article 16 safeguards in the protocol are provided to deal with a situation in which the protocol ceases to support the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We must always bear that in mind, but we have, I emphasise, put forward a package that is capable of doing the job. It is ambitious because the problems are significant, but it is a genuine attempt to solve the problems, and we are genuinely, and with real enthusiasm, taking part in the discussions.
Unfortunately, the EU banned the import of seed potatoes from GB at the end of last year. We believe that equivalence is the answer here, but in the committee session in September, the EU reaffirmed its position that dynamic alignment is needed between the UK and the EU for equivalence to be agreed. Given that our regime already aligns substantially with the EU’s, we continue to challenge the Commission to reconsider its position. We are very keen to resolve this.
The hon. Member for Strangford mentioned cattle movements to shows and sales. The Government have negotiated new rules with the EU that provide for NI livestock to move into GB and return to NI within 15 days if they are not sold at a sale, without needing to serve residency periods. That is significant.
On borders, for agrifood products, the Command Paper proposal would operate through the same internal UK trade scheme proposed for customs. The full SPS requirements of EU law would be applied for goods going to the Republic, and the UK would undertake to enforce them. There would also still be the means to apply risk-based controls on consignments as they move into NI, but there would be no need for numerous certificates and checks for individual items that are intended only for consumption in NI.
Live animals pose a different order of risk and require a specific approach. As has been said, that was recognised in national rules before the UK left the EU: all movements, including internal UK movements, were pre-notified, accompanied by health documentation and subject to checks. We would propose, broadly, to maintain these arrangements in this model. Similarly, recognising the potential biosecurity risk posed by certain plants and plant products, there should be an appropriate regime for these movements that does not obstruct the movement of standard products, such as seeds and plants for garden centres or personal use.
To conclude, technical discussions with the European Commission continue. They have intensified over recent weeks as the reality of what businesses in GB face and the impact of trade diversion on businesses and consumers in NI have been fully realised. Our preferred solution remains, as July’s Command Paper states, to have proposals that work for all parts of the supply chain and all products. If an SPS agreement is required to support the aims of the Command Paper, we are ready to engage with the Commission on this—absolutely.
It has been a delight to serve under your chairmanship today, Ms Rees, and I wish all hon. Members who have taken part in this broadly good-humoured debate a very merry Christmas.
I thank hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has enormous experience of the situation in Northern Ireland, and both he and the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) made valid points about the disruptive effect from the failure of both the EU and the UK Government to properly negotiate an arrangement that made sense. My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna), in her forthright style, made her views clear on the same problem while recognising, as we all must, that the situation is fraught with a danger that goes beyond the narrowness of a veterinary agreement and to the real sensitivities of people on both sides of the conversation in the north of Ireland. This issue is therefore both serious and urgent.
The hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson), on behalf of the SNP, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), on behalf of the Labour party, made similar points. Actually, there is enormous agreement among hon. Members. As I said to the Minister, at Christmas time, she may have gone into the stable in Bethlehem filled with straw and drawn the short straw in having to respond to the debate. Nevertheless—I say this kindly—while she gave a technically interesting answer, yes, some of the people at fault are in Brussels, but some are most certainly just down the road in Downing Street, possibly including the noble Lord Frost. The reality is that only a bumbling negotiator would end up in a situation without a plan for alignment of sanitary and phytosanitary products.
The Minister repeated Lord Frost’s words about dynamic alignment, but the marginal changes that we have made in the short run were not worth causing so much damage to the economy of Great Britain and the economy of Northern Ireland. As the hon. Member for Gordon said, it is not just about Northern Ireland; it is also about the ability of Scottish, English and Welsh agrifood and agribusiness to export not simply to Northern Ireland but to the whole of the EU. Failure to create such alignment is bumbling beyond belief. We do not need dynamic alignment; we simply needed to maintain the status quo until proper arrangements were made, and that is the Prime Minister’s failure. As I said, never kick a man until he is down. This Prime Minister is well down, and he most certainly deserves a good kicking for his failure on this important issue.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of securing a veterinary agreement in the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Free Period Product Scheme for Schools
Before we begin, I remind hon. Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when not speaking in the debate. This is in line with current Government and House of Commons Commission guidance. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. This can be done either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room. I call Ruth Cadbury to move the motion and then the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Free Period Product Scheme for Schools.
Thank you, Ms Rees. Is the loop on? I could not hear you very well because the loop was not on. As you probably will not be speaking too much, I hope I will cope.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Rees. The debate concerns the Government’s free period product scheme, where period products are available in English schools. As Chair of the all-party parliamentary group on period equality, I again bring a debate. Until recently, we found the pages of Hansard rather bare when it came to menstrual health. I believe the word tampon was first used in this place in the 1980s, in relation to an incident involving a customs officer. However, we have made progress since I joined this place in 2015 and in more recent years, when I brought a debate last year.
I welcome the chance today to talk about the Government’s scheme for schools and colleges in England. I will start by describing in a few words what it means to come on a period when in school. The Minister will realise that it has been rather a long time since that happened to me. Not all of these words apply to me, but they are common emotions and feelings for youngsters in school: unexpected, messy, embarrassing, shameful, bad back pain, headaches, PMT, stress and unexplained strong emotions and, overall, bloody.
When I applied for the debate, we did not know whether the Government would extend the scheme or whether there would be any changes or tweaks to it. We were very pleased on 26 November, when we received the welcome news that the Government would extend the scheme for 2022. There was a sigh of relief from students, teachers and parents across the country.
The precursor to the current Government scheme was the red box project, organised and delivered nationally by volunteers. Like many MPs, I worked with our local organiser who ran the Hounslow red box, led by Yeliz Kazim. She worked tirelessly, like many across the country, to get red boxes into schools, so that students could easily access free period products. I learned from Yeliz that it was not only period products that young people were asking for via their teachers. Yeliz also supplied spare underwear, tights and deodorant in the boxes she supplied. She had started to work with other organisations, such as youth clubs and council and community settings, to ensure that period products were available free in other settings.
I have always supported this campaign. I know that in Northern Ireland, the local Education Minister is considering the matter, off the back of a debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly last week. There is an eagerness for local councils to play their part. My own, Ards and North Down Borough Council, is part of that. I commend the hon. Lady, and let her know that there is a willingness and interest for this to happen in Northern Ireland in the way she is indicating.
It is welcome to hear about what is happening in Northern Ireland. I will later describe legislation that has been passed in the Scottish Parliament as well.
As many groups and charities, such as Bloody Good Period, have rightly said, that important work should not fall to the kindness of charity. Thanks to the tireless work of activists such as Amika George and of groups such as Free Periods, the school scheme was introduced after much lobbying and campaigning.
Although we have made much progress in improving how we talk about period poverty and menstrual health, I am aware that some people still question why we need the scheme. People incorrectly assume that tampons and pads are cheap, that women might need only one a day or that they are easy to get—but certainly, when pupils are supposed to be in school, it is not easy to go out to the shops, even if there is a shop nearby.
Period poverty causes pupils to miss schooling. A report by phs found that one in 14 girls said that
“they have missed schools as they could not afford or access period products.”
A report published in July found that period poverty got worse in the last year as the cost of living, loss of work and so on hit many families. It also found that 35% of teenage girls said that they had taken time off school because of their period, which was a 7% increase on 2019. Some of that will have been due to period pains or PMT, but poverty is a contributing factor. In that survey, 11% said that they had stayed off school because they could not afford period products—that figure was only 2% in the 2019 survey. The problem of poverty in accessing period products is getting worse and is affecting children’s ability to attend and remain in school.
Plan International UK, in its October report, estimated that nearly 2 million girls in the UK missed school at some point because of their period. It warned that there is a “toxic trio” of issues fuelling period poverty: first, the lack of proper education about periods; secondly, the stigma and shame around menstruation; and thirdly, the cost of the products. We have moved on since the distant days of my schooling, but we can do much more.
On stigma and shame, when I talk about the issue I tried to avoid the word “sanitary”, because it implies that having a period is a dirty or unbecoming act, which of course it is not. Great work is being done to tackle the stigma around periods in sport, which has an impact on many students. The Blood, Sweat and No Fears campaign raises awareness around sport and features powerful testimony from many elite athletes.
Young people, not just girls, need to learn and be able to talk about periods, which are a natural function and not something shameful. Too many mothers, teachers and other adults do not talk about periods and feel that they need to hide the facts, and too many young women feel shamed when they are on their period.
There is also the issue of cost. In the past few months, I have heard from many families locally how difficult it has been to make ends meet with the £20-a-week cut in universal credit, inflation, loss of work or a cut in hours, rising rents and rising fuel prices. The cost of buying period products for those who need them in the household adds to that—they cannot get away from that cost.
The Government’s period product scheme has a part to play in the awareness of periods, stigma and education. Having those products available, talking about them and advertising them in the school community is part of that and why they are needed. It provides an opportunity to talk about periods among boys and girls, which is important. The main advantage of the scheme, however, is that it can make a significant difference to addressing period poverty.
On the scheme, we welcome the fact that the Government have taken over from the Red Box Project, a charity and a voluntarily run scheme. I want as many schools as possible to sign up for the Government’s scheme. I welcome the latest figures that show that more than 70% of secondary schools have signed up, but 24% have not. The lower sign-up rate of 41% among primary schools is concerning, however. We know that many pupils could be having their first period in primary school: as the years go on, menstruation is starting at an earlier age, so these products are absolutely essential. The higher level of ignorance—if you like—in primary schools makes it even more important to have these products available in those schools, even though only a small percentage of their students need them.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. Again, to give an example from Northern Ireland, these products are available through school nurses in the schools. Whenever pupils go to ask for them, I think they need to be able to ask someone who understands.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. We need to make this easy and accessible, so that everybody knows who they can go to and that they can talk in privacy, because it is not just, “Could I have three pads please, miss?” It is about the staff member being open to having a conversation if needed, particularly with youngsters who have only just started having periods.
The other concern is the regional variations in the uptake of this scheme. From 2020, it appears that the north-east has an uptake of only 44%, compared with 50% in London. Although MPs can and do play a role in encouraging schools to sign up—that is something that we in the all-party parliamentary group do—I appreciate that our powers are not limitless, and we can only go so far in encouraging schools locally to sign up. I have heard feedback that some schools in more affluent areas think that they do not need to sign up to the scheme. Schools with lower numbers of students on the pupil premium were less likely to sign up, but that does not help those students who do need the service, and anyway, this is not just about affordability: there is a shame issue. We still hear of girls being unable to ask their mothers for the money to buy pads or tampons, or not knowing what to do or where to get them, so that is another reason why all schools should have these products available. I urge every school to sign up to this scheme and ensure that all pupils can access free products. We do not deny schools the chance to distribute free condoms on the basis of the school being in an affluent area, so I very much hope that all schools sign up.
What can the Government do to address these uptake levels, in addition to what they have already done? First, they can make it as straightforward and easy as possible for schools to access and operate this scheme. School staff have faced a huge strain from covid-19, and even before the virus hit, they had enough on their plate. If the Government could make it easier by making this scheme an opt-out one, rather than opt-in, that would really help. The other issue is communication: take-up is encouraged through occasional emails from the Department and some pieces on social media, but more could be done, including in those areas where sign-up rates have been lower. The APPG is happy to assist the Department in doing so.
The second issue I want to address is that of the products available in the scheme. Schools can currently order and receive products from Public Health England depending on their budget, and I understand that as some products are more expensive, schools naturally spend their budget on cheaper items if they get a bigger quantity. However, as with nappies, we know that the cheaper the product, the less useful it is. I remember that from my days—I will not go into detail; Members do not want to know. Actually, they do want to know, because they need to know that the cheaper product lasts less long and creates more mess.
We should also consider allowing a greater range of products—such as we had in the original Red Box scheme in Hounslow, based on feedback from young people and teachers—such as tights, pants, deodorants and so on. I would also welcome more use of reusable products, which of course are expensive, such as mooncups and even washable pads. Washable pads are really simple to make, but because they are still a minority product, as it were, they are expensive to buy. If they were available through the scheme, it would save young people the costs of buying single-use products every month, not to mention the environmental impact that single-use products have.
There is also the question of the scheme’s long-term future. Both this year and last, we have had to wait until late in the year to find out if the scheme was going to be continued or if it was going to be scaled down. I am sure it would provide schools and colleges with much-needed certainty if the scheme could be put on a more secure footing, and we did not face this cliff edge every year.
Finally, I hope that the Government do not think of this as a tick-box way of tackling period inequality—that, because of this scheme, the issue is solved. It is much more complex than that. The toxic trio of low awareness, discrimination and cost needs a more ambitious programme. I am proud of the amazing work of Monica Lennon, the Labour MSP in the Scottish Parliament, who fought for so long to see the pioneering Period Products (Free Provision) Scotland Bill pass into law. In the end, it was passed unanimously. It is a global first, as it mandates local authorities to provide free period products, which means that the roll-out will extend beyond schools and into places such as town halls, leisure centres, community settings and other public sites. This is the type of bold and ambitious policy that will make a huge difference to so many young people—and not just young people.
We know that period inequality does not just impact pupils. The poverty issue affects migrants, refugees and many marginalised people. Whenever I buy something for a food box or donate things to asylum seekers living on £8 a week, I always include period products. The scheme is a welcome and much-needed step to ensure that all of society is tackling period poverty. I have some questions for the Minister—I can give him my sheet of paper if it helps. Will the Government look at making this an opt-out rather than an opt-in scheme for schools? Will the Minister tell us what is being done to improve the take-up rate generally and in certain regions? Will the Government improve communications with schools about the scheme? Will they look at the products available in the scheme, so that they can be expanded to include pants, tights and other multi-use products? Will they look at putting the scheme on a more permanent or long-term footing? Will the Minister look at adjusting the scheme so that regional and local inequalities are addressed, such as by using pupil premium numbers? Will the Government look at the Act in Scotland and consider what more can be done to tackle period inequality?
Parliament and Government have become much better at talking about, and raising awareness of, menstrual health, and we are making progress. None the less, the figures over the past year show that period poverty is getting worse and that the impact on schooling is getting greater. We cannot afford to continue with a business-as-usual model. We need a bigger and better approach to ensure that no student misses school because of period inequality.
It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees, especially as it is my first Westminster Hall debate as a Minister for the Department for Education.
First, let me congratulate the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) on securing this very important debate. She has been a passionate campaigner on this issue for a long time. She articulated the case very eloquently—far better than I ever could—for this scheme and the need for it. I will try to cover as many of the points and questions that she raises but, as ever, I am happy to meet her at a later date to discuss the scheme in detail.
Let me begin with the point that she made at the beginning of her speech about stigma and taboo, because it is very important. We all have a part to play in this, and I will come on to it later in my contribution. The first thing to say is that we are committed to providing a world-class education, training and care for everyone. No young person in our country should be held back from reaching their potential because of their gender or background. There may be people listening and watching this debate thinking, “What does this middle-aged bloke know or care about period products?” But I do care passionately about this issue. I am passionate about ensuring that women and girls are supported in education and beyond.
The hon. Lady may not know this, but I was one of the architects of the tampon tax fund. Some £90 million has gone to women’s health charities as a result of that scheme, and now VAT has been removed from products. I am also the father of two young girls, one of whom will soon—very soon, I think—be in this position, so I have a personal interest, too. I want my girls and every girl in this country never to have to worry about period products being available in their school, and I want them to feel comfortable speaking about that with their teachers, peers and, I hope, their parents, and indeed their father.
As the hon. Lady rightly pointed out, we launched the period product scheme in January 2020, and I am delighted that we are extending it until August 2022, the end of the summer term. She made this point clearly, but I emphasise that the scheme has significant benefits. Schools and colleges can continue to use the scheme, and all will receive new spend cap allocations for the remainder of the academic year. That will be announced on 4 January. The hon. Lady pushes me to announce a further extension. All I can say at this stage is that any further extensions or new contracts will be announced in due course. I want to ensure—I think the hon. Lady knows how passionate I am about this subject and how committed the Government are to it—that schools and colleges are given as much notice as possible in order that they can place orders.
The Minister will be aware that Northern Ireland Education Minister Michelle McIlveen said:
“No-one should miss out on their education because they cannot afford or access these essential products. Providing free products will help pupils manage their periods confidently at school, reduce anxiety and stress and enable students to focus on their learning.”
Northern Ireland’s three-year, £2.6 million scheme will also tackle the lack of understanding and the stigma to which hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) referred. That might be an incentive for the Minister to try to follow Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman is right, and all the points he raises are fair and accurate. We work closely, particularly at official level, with devolved Administrations to develop schemes of this nature, to make sure that, as much as possible, there is some synergy. In September this year, Northern Ireland launched a three-year pilot scheme to address period poverty in schools, which we very much welcome. I suppose it is telling that all Governments across our United Kingdom are aligned on this issue. We recognise this need. I have to pay credit to the hon. Lady and the APPG for driving this agenda.
We are absolutely clear that organisations should have products available should learners need them. Many schools and colleges have benefited from charities over recent years, as the hon. Lady rightly points out, and we very much thank those charities for their support. Schools and colleges do not have to use the national scheme to purchase products. If they prefer to use an alternative route, they can of course do so, although costs are only met through the use of the Department’s scheme. With that in mind, our supplier, phs, will proactively contact organisations that have accessed the scheme so far. Organisations that have already ordered products should continue to use their existing account and log-in details. Schools will potentially be listening to the debate, so I refer them to phs’s contact details and more information about the scheme being clearly set out in guidance on gov.uk.
The hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth rightly referenced take-up. Since the period product scheme launched in January 2020, it has been fantastic to see how many schools and colleges have used it. Importantly, the scheme remained in operation throughout the partial school and college closures as a result of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. We had fantastic examples of organisations ensuring that young people continued to receive that support, even when they were learning from home. The hon. Lady referenced these figures, and it is really encouraging that 76% of secondary schools and 79% of colleges ordered products from the scheme during 2020. We continue to encourage those who have not yet accessed the scheme to do so. It is really important that they do, and that they recognise that that support is there. We intend to publish updated statistics from the scheme early next year. Although I cannot say much about that, I hope, I think and am confident and optimistic that the hon. Lady will be pleased when those new figures are published. She rightly raises the take-up of primary schools. I take up her offer to meet at a later date to discuss some of her ideas to improve that.
The hon. Lady also rightly referenced the environment. We continually monitor the ways in which we can make our scheme and others like it more environmentally friendly, such as by setting a minimum order value based on the organisation’s budget—for an average secondary school, that is about £1,500—in order to limit deliveries and reduce traffic and all those things. Importantly, we continue to include a range of sustainable and environmentally friendly products for schools and colleges to select, as I think the hon. Lady would hope. Our supplier reports that, over the past few months—I suspect driven in part by COP26—orders for environmentally friendly products increased significantly in the weeks up to and after COP26.
The hon. Lady rightly pushed me on range. Range is important, and she has raised the issue with me in private. I am looking very closely at additional period products, such as period pants, that we could potentially include in the product range for 2022. There are limitations as to exactly what we can include in the current contract, but I certainly commit to the hon. Lady that I will take this issue away and explore what further products we could include in the scheme.
Many of the reusable products, such as period pants and period pads, are made by very small SMEs. That is a different kettle of fish for the Department from having a single big contract with a major supplier. I hope the Minister will consider that opportunity, even though it might be an administrative burden of a different type for the Department.
I certainly will do that. One advantage of working with phs is that it has that capability and national reach, as well as the ability to procure at a local level.
The hon. Lady rightly touched on stigma and taboo, which I mentioned earlier. I think we do need to talk about periods. A vital element of the scheme’s success is ensuring that learners are aware that period products are available when they need them in their school or college. It can be challenging for some schools and colleges to communicate about this, especially if teachers and students find it difficult to talk openly about periods. Periods are a natural process, but too often they are treated as a taboo subject. I remember what it was like when I was a pupil at school: they were very much something that was not talked about.
We are taking action to tackle that through the new health education curriculum, which became compulsory for state-funded schools in England in 2020. Our statutory guidance insists that both boys and girls should be taught the key facts about the menstrual cycle, including what is an average period, the range of period products, and the implications for emotional and physical health. We have developed a “changing adolescent body” teacher training module, which will very much help in that regard. I desperately want teachers to feel confident in talking to students about this issue to tackle the stigma around menstruation.
Beyond the health education curriculum content, we have statutory guidance that directs schools to make adequate and sensitive arrangements to help ensure that girls prepare for and manage periods, including through requests for period products. I think that will make a real difference. Our user insight shows that even small changes, such as using the term “period products”—I have been very careful to use it, as did the hon. Lady—as opposed to “sanitary products”, help to shift the conversation away from any suggestion that periods are in some way unhygienic, which of course they are not; they are an entirely natural process.
I will touch briefly on ordering and distribution. This is a matter that mostly affects girls. Fundamentally, no girls should miss out on their education because of their period. Our scheme helps young people to go about their daily lives without getting caught out. It is not just about period poverty; it is about not being caught out. That is not just about pupils; it is also about teachers, who sometimes come on their periods unexpectedly, forget to bring products in with them or cannot afford the products they need. We have the online portal, but I am keen to work with the hon. Lady on how we can improve the process and ensure that more schools access this provision.
I am conscious that there are lots more questions and I would like to answer them. I am very happy to meet the hon. Lady at a later date to do so. This issue mostly affects women and girls, but it is important that we are all comfortable discussing it. I want more people in this House and in schools and colleges up and down the country to discuss this issue, so that it is not a taboo and so that we take the stigma out of it. My message to girls and young women up and down the country is this: please do not ever miss out on your education because of your period. Make sure your school or college signs up to our period products scheme, and that you are able to make the most of the continuation of this fantastic scheme. I conclude by thanking the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for their contributions, and wishing all within the House a very merry Christmas.