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Food Prices

Volume 718: debated on Thursday 14 July 2022

My Department has been working closely with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to assess the impact on food prices as a result of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and other pressures.

Given the huge increase in costs that farmers are enduring, what is being done to balance the need to mitigate food price increases with ensuring that farmers are paid fairly for their products?

My hon. Friend is right to identify an extremely challenging part of the global cost of living crisis that we are trying to confront. Critical in that is the role of farming and the production of food domestically. One key area where we are able to assist and where lots of work is going on is the provision of fertiliser. She is a rural MP, as am I, so she will know that fertiliser is a key driver of overall food prices. I am pleased to say that for some weeks, DEFRA has been running a fertiliser taskforce, which is doing valuable work to stabilise the market and help farmers to optimise their use of artificial fertiliser.

I visited a farm in my constituency in the Scottish Borders last week, alongside the National Farmers Union of Scotland. The cost of feed, fertiliser and many other essential products has skyrocketed, and that is clearly pushing up food prices. What more can the Government do to help our farmers and support this important industry?

My hon. Friend raises a very good point, although sadly the provision of food is devolved north of the border. We are working very closely with the Scottish Government to make sure that they put in place adequate provision to assist farmers. Here in England, for example, we have introduced the basic payment to help with cash flow. That has been welcomed by the industry, but the key driver of the fertiliser price will dog us for some time. If prices are too high, farmers will use less fertiliser. If they use less fertiliser, there will be lower yields and smaller animals, which means higher prices. Getting that combination right is critical, as is encouraging and supporting farmers through direct subsidy to return to the old-fashioned fertiliser use of animal slurry. We are helping them with their storage capacity and capability, so that they can optimise their yields from the crops that they sow.

One of the most worrying increases in food prices is for infant formula, some of which is now so expensive that it is security-tagged or kept behind the till, because families have resorted to stealing it. What are the Government doing to make sure that infant formula is available to families who need it? At this price, many cannot afford it at all?

We are monitoring all prices very closely, particularly for vital products such as formula. I know that the hon. Lady will welcome the support that is going to 8 million households on means-tested benefits, starting from today and with another instalment coming in the autumn, on top of the assistance that has already been given. We have now put something like £37 billion into the system to assist families, but we constantly keep these things under review and will act if needed.

Fresh fruit and vegetables are very important to everybody’s diet. We would like more people, especially people from poorer households, to be able to afford more. One of the problems is that we do not have enough people in the UK now to pick the British crop of fresh fruit and vegetables. How will we ensure that that happens?

Can we also ensure that fresh fruit and vegetables from overseas can get to supermarkets faster? I do not know what the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’s experience is when he buys peppers, courgettes, onions or potatoes, but my experience these days is that they have all gone off by the time I get home.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about access to ambient and fresh food for all of us. I know that the Home Secretary is in constant discussion with colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the industry about the provision and balance of labour that we encourage to come to the country to help us with summer harvesting, for example. We also need to work hard to ensure that the bulk of our imported fresh food gets here quickly and can enter the supply chain extremely quickly. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and I will work closely over the summer to ensure that our short, straight supply lines are maintained as efficiently as possible.

I have a small domestic tip for the hon. Gentleman that I learned from a friend who works in the industry. It is extremely important that the chill chain is maintained. If he can get chilled food as quickly as possible into his fridge, it will last a lot longer than if he leaves it hanging around and then chills it again. That is particularly true of dairy products.

Aberdeen Financial Fairness Trust and Bristol University have tracked the fortunes of UK households since the beginning of the pandemic. They report that one in six UK households is suffering serious financial difficulties, and the situation is getting worse. Many households have reduced the quality of the food they eat, sold possessions or cancelled insurance to help them to cope. Single parents, disabled people and larger families are among the worst affected. What steps does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster intend to take to tackle the price rises that are driving this inequality and poverty?

I am sure that the hon. Lady recognises that we are part of an international global food supply chain and are subject to a global fuel and energy market that is broadly driving up prices for pretty much every developed nation, and indeed across the whole of the globe. She is right, though, that we need to seek to assist those who are struggling most in this challenging time. I was very pleased to see it announced in the media that the first of the cost of living payments will go to 8 million households across the country this month, with a further payment of £320-odd later in the year, on top of the £300 extra to pensioners, the £150 extra to those who have disabilities and, of course, the £400 discount on energy bills later this year. We are putting an enormous amount of money—£37,000,000,000—into the system to assist with what is undoubtedly a very challenging period for families up and down the land.

I hear what the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster says, but I am afraid that in terms of people’s real experience in their day-to-day life, it is not enough. It is not good enough. Families across the UK know that the Tory Government here are not doing enough with the powers that they have. Scotland has the lowest child poverty in the UK, and that has been achieved by policies such as the Scottish child payment that help households where it is needed the most. Here, we have Tory leadership candidates promising major tax cuts, which clearly indicates that they believe that there is financial headroom.

Does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster agree that the priority should be the people who are being hit hardest by the cost of living crisis, rather than tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations? What assessment has he made of the benefits of policies such as the child payment, which could make a real difference to households in need?

I have learned over my years in government, national and local, that one of the key factors that we should have in mind is balance. While the hon. Lady is right that we should always have in mind the ability to assist those who are struggling most in our society, we have to balance that against the health of the economy and our ongoing ability to provide exactly that assistance. North of the border, as far as I can see, the Scottish Government concentrate on one and neglect the other. I am sure that there are many people who drive the wealth creation effort in Scotland who rue the day that the SNP Government took office, because Scotland has undoubtedly performed worse economically than other parts of the United Kingdom over the past 10 years.