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Food Security

Volume 721: debated on Thursday 27 October 2022

14. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to ensure adequate contingency planning for food security in the context of the (a) cost of living crisis and (b) market unpredictability. (901893)

The hon. Lady is right that the disruption to supply chains caused by covid and Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine poses challenges to food security the world over. The UK does have a high degree of food security, and my Department works closely with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and industry figures to monitor food supply. I can reassure her that we remain well equipped to deal with situations that may cause disruption. Indeed, our food security strategy sets out a plan to transform our food system to ensure it is resilient and fit for the future.

I thank the Minister for that response, although I notice he did not mention the cost of living crisis, which was mentioned in my question. In the past week, both the former Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield, and Henry Dimbleby, the author of the national food strategy, have called for Cobra to be involved and to look at the extent of food poverty in this country, particularly given rising food prices. Will the Minister support that suggestion and, if not, what will his team do to ensure there is cross-governmental co-operation on tackling this issue?

I hope the hon. Lady heard from the Prime Minister’s comments yesterday his commitment to showing compassion in this area, and it is certainly something that is very important to me as well. Of course, I will take my duties as Cabinet Office co-ordinator and as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to include ensuring that we take a co-ordinated approach to that. The Government have spent many billions of pounds supporting the most vulnerable, such as the over £200 billion through the welfare systems in 2022-23, including £108 billion to people of working age, but I will continue to take action to make sure we help the most vulnerable.

The latest Office for National Statistics figures show that half of adults are buying less food as a result of the cost of living crisis. Earlier this year, farmers slammed the Government for being “blasé” about food security following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. One farmer branded governance from Westminster as shambolic, slow to see problems, slower to react and inadequate when it does. It is the Government’s responsibility to plan and be prepared for sudden shocks, and it is essential for us to have a national resilience strategy, but we have been waiting 14 months for that crucial strategy. I am starting to think its existence is an urban myth. At this time of national crisis, can this month’s Minister explain to the public why the national resilience strategy is permanently at the bottom of the Department’s in-tray? Will that change?

First, I would hope that the hon. Lady heard from my previous answer my personal commitment as Chancellor of the Duchy to ensure this is at the top of the Government’s in-tray. Of course one of the consequences of the invasion of Ukraine is greater food insecurity. That is why the Cabinet Office is taking action to co-ordinate to ensure we address that. However, underlying all this is an inflationary problem. At the absolute heart of the Prime Minister’s commitment as an incoming Prime Minister is making sure that we get a grip of inflation and start to see it fall. If we can start to see it fall, all those pressures will be relieved.

My concern, and that of others, is that this summer of chaos has left a black hole in emergency preparedness, beyond just food strategy—in other emergency resilience planning. This morning the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy concluded in its report that

“no Minister is taking responsibility for”

ensuring the resilience of vital power, transport and communications networks. We have long called for a dedicated Minister of resilience as part of Labour’s three-point plan for a more resilient Britain, learning the lessons from covid. So will the Government now follow our lead and adopt the recommendations of the Joint Committee report, but start with a dedicated Minister responsible for resilience?

In essence, the Cabinet Office is the Department of resilience; it is the cornerstone of my duty as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and indeed the duty of the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General. It is absolutely top of our agenda and of course, at a time like this, as we deal with the consequences of the invasion of Ukraine, it is one of the many things we are grappling with and dealing with. So I can give the hon. Lady my complete assurance that that remains at the heart of the Government’s activity. I do not believe we need a specific Minister for resilience, as we are both Ministers for resilience.