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.