Motion to Take Note
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to introduce this debate on behalf of the Select Committee on Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment. I start by thanking all the members of the committee for their excellent contributions to our inquiry. In particular, I thank my noble friend Lady Boycott, as well as Anna Taylor of the Food Foundation, who first suggested the idea for this inquiry. We were supported by two superb specialist advisers, Professor Martin White from Cambridge University and Professor Elizabeth Robinson from Reading University. We received over 100 submissions of written evidence and heard 44 oral evidence witnesses. Last but not least, I express our gratitude for the support of a truly outstanding team of Beth Hooper, the committee clerk, Sam Kenny, the policy analyst, and Rebecca Pickavance, the committee assistant.
The title of our report, Hungry For Change: Fixing the Failures in Food, neatly encapsulates our findings. Our witnesses told us that the food system in this country is broken and that the poorest people suffer the most as a consequence. In a moment I shall explain in more detail what this means and what we recommended as solutions, but I hope noble Lords we will indulge me if I start with a very short historical digression.
As the historian David Cannadine wrote:
“For most of recorded history … poverty was not a problem at all: it was a fact of life … Only … during the last two hundred years, has it been upgraded from an insuperable and ‘natural’ condition into an intolerable but solvable problem”.
He might have said “in principle a solvable problem”, because in the past 200 years, although we have had the means to eradicate poverty in Britain, we have not done so.
Perhaps the clearest manifestation of poverty is malnutrition. Some 100 years ago, malnutrition in Britain meant starvation. Although we were the richest country in the world in the late 19th century, malnutrition among the poor was rife. The Government took notice when they tried to recruit soldiers for the second Boer War in 1899: 80% of the recruits were deemed unfit to fight and the Army had to reduce the height threshold for recruits from five feet three inches to five feet because poor people were so short as a result of malnutrition. The Government of the day were shocked into action and set up an Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration, which recommended that the poorest children in this country should be given free school meals.
Fast forward another 120 years, and today, according to official figures, between one in four and one in five children in this country still live in poverty. This is probably an underestimate, as the Government’s measure is based entirely on relative income and does not consider the cost of living a decent life. Today’s malnutrition associated with poverty manifests itself in two very distinct ways: either poor people cannot afford to buy enough to eat—they are undernourished—or they can afford or get access to only an unhealthy diet, commonly known as junk food, which might fill them with cheap and delicious calories but at the same time contribute to chronic disease and a shortened lifespan. The resulting inequalities are stark. Healthy life expectancy for the poorest decile in this country is about 53 years—nearly 20 years less than for the richest decile. By the age of five, children in the poorest areas are already twice as likely to be obese as children of the same age in the least deprived areas.
Modern malnutrition is not the only factor, but the evidence we heard suggested that it is significant in contributing to these inequalities. The term often used to describe the stress of poverty and food is “food insecurity”, which the National Diet and Nutrition Survey defines as
“limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.”
The Government have not in the past routinely measured food insecurity, but in March this year the DWP estimated that 13% of children in this country live in low food security and 6% in very low food security.
Nothing that I have said so far is new, but successive Governments have done precious little about it, perhaps because it is often below the radar. Tia from Lancashire, one of our witnesses living with food insecurity, said this:
“You know everyone’s struggling but you just don’t know how much everyone is struggling because no one wants to talk about it. An older person who is struggling doesn’t want to talk about it because they feel embarrassed or they’re embarrassing their kids. Some people don’t want to talk about it in Darwen”—
where she comes from—
“because there is such a stigma.”
The pandemic has underlined the problems of food insecurity and food poverty. Obese people appear to be more likely to die of Covid-19. At the same time, we were told that food bank use—an indicator of food poverty —has risen by 81%.
I turn from describing the problem to some of our proposed solutions. We made more than 50 recommendations. Noble Lords will be relieved to know that I will not go through all of them; I shall highlight just a few. First, on the causes of food insecurity, many of our witnesses referred to universal credit. We were told that the five-week delay in receiving payment and the fact that the amount of benefit does not consider the cost of a healthy diet are major contributors to food insecurity. The Food Foundation estimates that the poorest decile of the population would have to spend 74% of their disposable income to eat according to the government guidelines for a healthy diet. Eating unhealthily is much cheaper. For the richest decile, the figure is just 6%.
Money is important but not the only factor. We also heard that access to healthy food—many people live in so-called food deserts—knowledge, time and the emotional bandwidth to think about diet and health were also important. We acknowledge that other select committees were investigating the universal credit system, but we recommended that the cost of a healthy diet should be included in the calculation of the quantum of benefit. We also recommended that the Government should address the problem of food poverty among those with no recourse to public funds and that the value of Healthy Start vouchers should be increased. Finally, we recommended that the Government should collect data on food insecurity through the National Diet and Nutrition Survey.
I turn to the food system. Many of our witnesses told us that the UK food system is not fit for purpose and they called for whole-system change. What does a food system actually mean? It refers to the way food is produced, processed, marketed, sold and consumed—everything from plough to plate. In comparison with other European countries, we eat a relatively high proportion of highly processed food, artfully constructed by the food industry to be cheap and delicious. We as humans are evolutionary programmed to like sugar, fat and salt, as these were essential for survival in our ancient history. It is cheap processed foods, high in sugar, fat and salt—commonly known as junk food—that contribute to dietary ill health and health inequalities.
On the basis of the evidence we heard, we recommended a series of changes to the food system to make healthier choices easy, especially for the poorest people in this country. These included restrictions on the promotion and advertising of unhealthy food—food high in fat, sugar and salt—and greater pressure on the food industry to reformulate highly processed food. We noted that there was good progress in the early days of the salt reduction campaign—I declare an interest as chairman of the Food Standards Agency when that was launched—but this appears to have stalled since responsibility for it was taken away from the FSA. We also heard that the soft drinks industry levy had been successful in reducing the sugar content of soft drinks and should therefore be extended to other products.
We felt that local authorities need to be given the powers and incentives to restrict the creation of new fast-food outlets, which are often the only way to get food in the poorest communities. We recommended a mandatory limit on the calories per portion in the out-of-home sector. When we asked a representative of the fast-food sector why it sells such massive portions of chips, he said, very honestly, “That’s because it’s about competition; the bigger the portion, the better value for money the people who shop for it feel that it is.” We concluded that labelling has a role to play but that it is mostly used by those who are least in need of help to improve their diets—the worried well.
Malnutrition starts in infancy, and the life trajectories of poor diet are set early on. I have already referred to the obesity figures for children by the time they are five years old. We made recommendations about school food and childhood nutrition. School meals standards should be properly monitored and evaluated—which they are not—and initiatives to address holiday hunger, as well as the national school breakfast programme, should be properly funded. I am sure that other noble Lords will expand on these points.
I turn briefly to the impact of food on the natural environment. At the time of our inquiry, the then Agriculture Bill was still in progress, and a number of our recommendations relating to it are now out of date. There is no doubt that, in this country and globally, food production is a major contributor to environmental damage—using fresh water, contributing to climate change and to the destruction of natural habitats, as well as the use of pesticides which pollute the environment and damage wildlife.
Three points are of continuing relevance. We recommended that the Government should include environmental sustainability alongside health in its dietary guidelines. As part of this, the Government should develop a plan to increase fruit and vegetable consumption, because we know that the consumption of too much red meat is bad for both health and the environment. Finally in this section, we recommended that the Government should adhere to their commitment to not allowing the importation of food produced to lower environmental standards than that produced in the UK, and not simply offshore the problem of environmental damage. I would welcome unequivocal confirmation on this from the Minister, particularly as I still hear the view from senior politicians that cheaper, lower-standard imported food will be beneficial for poor people in this country.
In concluding my summary of the recommendations, I return briefly to governance. Henry Dimbleby will shortly publish the second part of his national food strategy, following which the Government are committed to publishing a White Paper within six months. According to the Minister,
“This strategy will set out proposals that will aim to ensure that the food system delivers healthy, sustainable, affordable food for all.”—[Official Report, 20/10/20; col. 1473.]
How do we know that the strategy will be implemented? We recommended the creation of an independent oversight body, analogous to the Committee on Climate Change, to monitor and report on progress on implementation.
The Government’s response to our report fell broadly into three categories. The first was, “We are waiting for the national food strategy.” Part I of the national food strategy was published nearly a year ago, shortly after our report. It made a number of similar recommendations to ours. I am not aware that the Government have formally responded, and I hope that the Minister will update us. The second category of response was, “We reject the recommendations”—for instance, embedding the cost of a healthy diet in benefit rates; uprating Healthy Start vouchers; improving the poorest schoolchildren’s access to healthy food; giving local authorities more power to restrict new fast-food outlets; accelerating the reformulation of unhealthy food; and establishing an independent oversight body to oversee implementation of the national food strategy. The third category was, “We will consider further action”—for instance, restricting the promotion and advertising of junk food.
Overall, I was, frankly, disappointed by these responses. However, since then, we have seen some developments. Following Marcus Rashford’s campaign, the Government have committed to allocating additional money to support holiday free school meals. I hope the Minister will confirm that this will be a long-term commitment. The Government have announced that they intend to ban adverts for junk food before the 9 pm watershed and online, restrict in-store marketing and require calorie labelling in food outlets with more than 250 employees. I would welcome confirmation from the Minister that these plans will go ahead and some indication of the timeline. Last week, it was reported that, following a legal challenge, eligibility for Healthy Start vouchers will be extended to asylum seekers and immigrants without settled status.
In conclusion, I hope that these recent developments are a sign that the Government are at last taking the issue of poverty, diet, health and the environment seriously. I look forward to the contributions from other noble Lords, and to the Minister’s response. I hope he will update us on progress and assure us that, when it is published, the White Paper will really address the urgent issues in our report. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. I much regret my very early departure, due to health circumstances, from the Select Committee after one meeting in summer 2019. I was looking forward to its work and was not disappointed in the outcome. It is a very good analysis of the food system and its failures, and it provides solution after solution.
Food poverty, health and the environment provide a social picture of the present UK, and it is not a pleasing one. There is not a single one of the report’s recommendations I take exception to, which is more than can be said for the Government. The strong recommendations regarding the universal credit £20 uplift, free school meals, an obesity strategy, commercial incentives on processed foods and long-term food insecurity all require action this day.
I am afraid that the silo-working of government comes through loud and clear in the report. The present Government cannot be wholly to blame for that—it is a culture of which I have first-hand experience. What is more, I do not have the answer, except to say that strong and firm ministerial leadership from the top can have a major effect. We saw that with the programme to set up the Social Exclusion Unit in December 1997. Civil servants from across Whitehall queued up to work there.
Although it deals with England, the report also explores Scotland and Wales. There is far less silo working in the devolved Administrations—at least, that is how it appears from the outside. Certainly, the role of Food Standards Scotland is more holistic than that of the agency in England, because it retains the original remit of food safety, as well as nutrition and health.
I too was disappointed on reading the Government’s response to the report, given its flat refusal to consider some poverty issues and a constant refrain of “waiting for Dimbleby”. There are some points I refuse to believe or take seriously. Paragraph 129 states:
“The Government are also putting public health at the heart of everything we do.”
The evidence is the opposite. One sentence, which I will quote when I conclude, is a massive porky. I am afraid the Government’s response to the recommendations on food imports—from paragraphs 133 and 134 onwards—is simply not believable. All the evidence from trade talks points in the opposite direction. In the main, the Government’s response is shoddy and second rate.
I accept that the report is a year old, which is nothing in the scale of things. The note for this debate from the excellent Food Foundation is not a year old. I will list just a few of the policy changes it recommends, which support those of the Select Committee. It says that our food environment does not support healthy choices, particularly in low-income neighbourhoods. One in four places to buy food is a fast-food outlet. That is the average; it is higher in low-income authorities. Food and drink advertising is focused on unhealthy options: 17% on confectionary, 12% on soft drinks, 16% on snacks—and just 2.5% on fruit and vegetables.
On the affordability of healthy food, the Food Foundation points out that the poorest fifth of UK households would need to spend almost 40% of disposable income on food to meet the Eatwell Guide standards compared to 7% for the well-off. Calorie for calorie, healthier foods are three times more expensive than less healthy foods.
Finally, the Food Foundation finds that children from more deprived families have less healthy diets and experience worse outcomes from the food system. By ages four to six, the most deprived fifth of households are twice as likely to be obese than those in the least deprived fifth. In paragraph 31 of their shoddy response, the Government give a flat refusal to consider the committee’s recommendation to embed the cost of the Eatwell Guide in the social security system.
I want finally to refer to a key aspect of the consequences of lack of action. I realise that what I am about to say will not go down well in some quarters, but given that healthy eating leads to a healthy, longer life, it is clear that lack of action and attention leads to the conclusion that the Government are not too concerned about people not living longer, especially if they are poorer and maybe less likely to vote for them. The evidence is abundant.
Paragraph 165 of the report states clearly:
“The food environment has a substantially more negative impact on lower-income groups than … wealthier counterparts, and therefore directly contributes to rising health inequalities.”
This is a serious conclusion. The Food Foundation also says in its note that increasing vegetable intake, while reducing meat and sugar, so that everybody gets a five-a-day, could contribute eight additional months to the UK’s average life expectancy. The national life tables from the Office for National Statistics, published in September 2020 and after the report, show that life expectancy has slowed in the last decade compared with the previous decade. The ONS’s note says that
“a marked slowdown in the rate of improvements has been observed since 2011”.
According to the Marmot review, life expectancy has flatlined since 2010, which is the first time since 1900. According to Sir Michael Marmot’s evidence to the people’s Covid review, since 2010 we have lost a decade in terms of the public’s health. Marmot’s report in 2010, Fair Society, Healthy Lives, commissioned by Gordon Brown, was welcomed by the coalition Government, but they did not put any of the principles into practice. There was no interest in doing so. On 17 December last year, the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, said in answer to a question of mine about the stalling of life expectancy that it was “extremely worrying”. In fact, I can almost hear Johnson saying, “Poor people are poor because of their own fault and they die earlier as a result of their own lifestyles.” The Government’s response indicates that they plan to do nothing about this.
The executive summary to the latest Marmot review, Health Equity in England: The Marmot Review 10 Years On, states:
“The national government has not prioritised health inequalities, despite the concerning trends and there has been no national health inequalities strategy since 2010.”
That brings me to the porky in the Governments response—it is the final sentence:
“The Government of the day is always accountable to Parliament.”
I do not believe that this Government think that they are accountable. In my, now long, experience in both Houses, they are certainly far less accountable to Parliament than the Government of Margaret Thatcher. Frankly, we all need to wake up to this fact. Otherwise, we will get no action at all, which is at the moment causing poorer people to die earlier.
My Lords, as with the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, it was a pleasure to serve on the Select Committee, chaired so ably by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and staffed by our in-House team and the special advisers. As the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said, the committee put forward a very impressive bid to tackle this issue holistically and coherently, looking in parallel at the issues of hunger, health and sustainability to try to develop some coherent policies.
My remarks will be brief because I must apologise to the House that I have to leave shortly for a meeting. I shall not be able to listen to everybody’s speeches. Therefore, I thought your Lordships should be saved from listening to me drone on.
Like the noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Krebs, I was disappointed by the Government’s response. Since the report was published and the Government published their response, there have been several initiatives by the Government in this field, notably in the obesity strategy, where some of the approaches that they look to take will have unintended consequences—but there will be time enough to discuss those when the regulations on calorie labelling come before this House shortly. Other of the Government’s initiatives are far more welcome. I am sure that few Members of this House do not look favourably on the provisions in the Environment Bill to mandate weekly collections for food waste, which is an important step forward.
However, the stock response to the report seemed very much to be, “Well, we’re waiting for the food strategy from Henry Dimbleby and we will publish a White Paper in due course.” I wish to make one suggestion in regard to that. Our recommendation 51 was:
“The Government’s White Paper … must include a definitive outline of what constitutes a sustainable diet with regards to health, social and environmental impacts. It must be accompanied with a graded … plan and communications strategy to move towards this diet.”
Choice is what we have in this country, and choice is what people should have in their diets, but I contend that it is the role of a responsible Government to give advice to individuals as consumers about what constitutes a diet that will support their health and the health of the planet. Since our report and the Government’s response were published, the Government have accepted as the sixth carbon budget the recommendations of the Climate Change Committee, outlining that they support the delivery of a target of a 78% reduction on 1990 levels by 2035.
However, the Climate Change Committee was absolutely clear that a fundamental tool to achieve that target was a 20% shift away from meat and dairy towards more plant-based diets. We have yet to see the Government’s net-zero strategy, which will show us in some detail how they intend to deliver their new, welcome target for 2035, but it is hard to see how they would achieve it without taking forward the recommendations of the Climate Change Committee on diets. Not only should they accept those recommendations but, as the committee said:
“An effective strategy to tackle awareness of the climate impacts of what we eat is an essential part of our pathway.”
That was something that our committee made absolutely clear: that, as we move forward, the Government need to communicate clearly with the public, educating them about what constitutes a sustainable and healthy diet. When the Climate Assembly was brought together to look at how we can bring people along with us on the journey towards net zero, it was very strong on the need for people to be supported, educated and communicated with about the issues of a sustainable diet. It focused particularly on the areas of education, procurement and waste.
I can hear the Minister now saying, “Oh, it’s fine. She’s saying things which are all about the national food strategy and we can just say, ‘It’s lovely to hear what the House is saying and, of course, we will reply in due course’.” I am expecting that, so why did I bother to make my one point today? I made it because, before we get to the White Paper following the national food strategy, we need to address this issue of communication.
Of course, Public Health England has been disbanded, and, by this autumn, we will have a new centre for health promotion, which will be an in-house department—part of the Department of Health and Social Care. Therefore, there is a genuine question that needs to be answered now—I hope that the Minister will respond to this in his remarks at the end—about what Defra is doing now in terms of discussing the constitution of that new body to make sure that the issues around sustainable diet will be addressed at the same time as the laudable aims for tackling the nation’s health, making sure that the resources are there, the connections are made and the remit includes the issue of sustainability so that we can make those joined-up solutions. It will be a wasted opportunity if, by the time we come to the Government’s response in their White Paper, this new body, which will have significant resources to promote public health, has been set up and it is too late to include sustainability in its remit.
My Lords, it was a privilege to serve on the committee that produced this report. It was my first experience of a committee in this House, and it set a very high standard. I too would like to thank my fellow members and pass on sincere apologies from my noble friend Lady Sater, who is so sorry that she cannot be here with us today to contribute, as she did so ably during our inquiries. I know that we are all grateful to our chair, the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and I personally thank him for his patience, courtesy and, above all, his wisdom and knowledge, which were key to producing such an insightful and, I hope, constructive report.
As others have mentioned, we had a wide-ranging brief, but today I will focus on one aspect already mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs: childhood food poverty. It is more than 80 years since George Orwell famously wrote, in The Road to Wigan Pier:
“Twenty million people are underfed but literally everyone ... has access to a radio. What we have lost in food we have gained in electricity. Whole sections of the working class who have been plundered of all they really need are being compensated, in part, by cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life.”
I wonder whether we have to ask ourselves: has enough really changed since then? Look under the surface and an estimated 11 million people, including around 2.8 million children, are living in poverty in the UK today. Look further still and you come to food poverty and food insecurity—the inability to secure food of sufficient quality and quantity to enable good health and enable you to participate properly in society.
According to the latest official data, approximately 1.1 million children are living in households classed as “food insecure”. For those children, the consequences of not being able to put decent food on the table can be literally life-changing. Food insecurity can cause anxiety and affect children’s academic attainment and therefore their future prospects—and, of course, it affects their physical health.
Replace Orwell’s “underfed” with “undernourished” and consider that children living in deprived areas are around twice as likely to be obese, with all the far-reaching implications that that entails. Of all the troubling evidence that we heard during the course of our inquiries, the most shocking came from Health Minister Jo Churchill, who told us:
“One in 10 children enters primary school obese, and that rises to one in five by the time they leave”.
I still struggle to come to terms with that statistic. In the years when we should be protecting our children the most—when they are at the beginning of their lives, with their futures ahead of them—we are failing them.
Our report made clear that there are three public food programmes, as mentioned—Healthy Start vouchers, free school meals and holiday hunger initiatives—that should be extended and reformed if we are to set about fixing this problem. The Government deserve credit for the changes that they have since made: they have increased the value and implementation of Healthy Start vouchers, and the DfE has announced an extension of funding for school breakfast clubs until 2023.
There have also been various interim measures, as government, local authorities and schools have had to deal with the fallout of the pandemic. However, while coronavirus has highlighted and indeed exacerbated the issue of childhood food insecurity, as we gradually make our way back to normal life, we still need long-term solutions to these problems. They were here long before Covid hit and will be here long after if we do not do something about them.
To this end, and with regard to Healthy Start vouchers, I ask my noble friend the Minister to clarify whether the recent increase is a one-off or whether the vouchers will be linked to the consumer price index, as recommended in our report? It is fantastic to see so many retailers boosting the value of these vouchers and offering various connected promotions. How do the Government intend to continue raising awareness of the scheme, particularly for individuals, as it is this that will ensure proper take-up?
On breakfast clubs, while the extension of funding is most welcome, the eligibility threshold remains the same, potentially excluding many of those in need. Could my noble friend confirm whether the Government will look at this and whether there is any intention for the National School Breakfast Programme to train facilitators to enable schools to access external funding in the future, which was the Government’s original intention, to sustain the scheme into the future?
Breakfast clubs are there to address a specific problem: quite simply, children are coming to school hungry, which inevitably affects their performance throughout the day. Holiday programmes fulfil a similar role, catching those most in need, when the schools are not there to provide for them. I welcome the Government’s initiative to extend the holiday activities and food programme across 2021, but I also ask the Minister whether work is ongoing to assess the need in the longer term? As I said, the threat from Covid may recede, but this particular problem is not going away.
Finally, I will address free school meals. This is a complicated area but, in a nutshell, by changing the eligibility rules from all those claiming universal credit to those with a net annual income of below £7,400, there is an understandable worry that many thousands of children will fall through the net. The Government say that the new rules will result in approximately 50,000 more children from low-income households becoming eligible. This may be the case, but the rules also mean that significantly more children—approximately 160,000, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies—will now be excluded from free school meals.
We were quite modest in what we asked of the Government, simply suggesting that they outline how they intend to mitigate the impact of their eligibility proposals. However, in the National Food Strategy, Henry Dimbleby went further, recommending that the Government should:
“Expand eligibility ... to include every child (up to the age of 16) from a household where the parent or guardian is in receipt of Universal Credit (or equivalent benefits).”
I agree with him.
It is not just about who receives free school meals but how they receive them. One young girl from Blackburn told the committee’s researchers:
“Because it was such a small school, everyone was friends with each other but I never wanted to use my free school meals because sometimes you had to go in with a massive pink slip to get them and I just felt too embarrassed so I sometimes got my mum to put money on my card so I could use that instead.”
No child should have to feel ashamed in this way. I ask my noble friend the Minister not only whether he will consider Henry Dimbleby’s proposals but whether the Government will look at how free school meals are administered?
There are many other questions that could be asked and many recommendations from our report that have not yet had a considered response. At the time, this was because the national food strategy had not then been published. Now that part 1 of that strategy has been completed, with part 2 due in the summer, I hope that the committee will receive the response that this report not only deserves but requires, given the urgency of many of the issues it has raised.
My Lords, I am thankful to Members of your Lordships’ House who sent me their best wishes when I was created, by Her Majesty the Queen, Baron Sentamu of Lindisfarne in the County of Northumberland and of Masooli in the Republic of Uganda.
“Masooli” means “plentiful place of maize”; it is the village where I was born and grew up. Today is my birthday, and it would have been Prince Philip’s 100th birthday. He rests in peace and will rise in glory. Lindisfarne needs no explanation, save to say that Aidan of Lindisfarne’s great passion was to help everyone in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria, especially the poor, to encounter Jesus Christ, His compassion and His friendliness. He greatly valued education and the development of young people.
Therefore, I am honoured to be delivering my “maiden” speech in this debate on Hungry for Change. I thank the Committee and all those who worked hard to bring this to our attention. Already three of its members have spoken and I associate myself with their views. This report covers many burning issues facing us today of poverty, social justice, and education.
There comes a time in the life of a nation when a great crisis challenges a thoughtful Government to reimagine not only their own vision of themselves as a governing body but their vision of the kind of nation that they hope to govern in future. It is an opportunity for radical reassessment, calling for courage, imagination, and a readiness to set in motion practical actions which will have transformative outcomes in serving the well-being and flourishing of all. The United Kingdom is not short of people who are hungry for change and have good ideas, but it is short in discerning the ways of achieving sustainable change and stability. This report hints at it. Therefore, let us keep to task. I am very grateful for it.
In the first half of the last century, the crises we faced were two world wars, a pandemic, and the Great Depression of the 1930s. The result was a brave and radical reimagining, with some of the blessings that we enjoy today: the development of the “welfare state”—a phrase coined by Archbishop William Temple, instead of Beveridge’s “social insurance”—the great liberalising Education Act, and a National Health Service, the continued safety of which has been a key part of our Covid-19 response.
In the early years of this century, we have experienced two crises which offered similar moments for reflection, action, and reform. It could be argued that the financial crisis of 2007-08 was an opportunity missed for radical reform. I believe that austerity was the wrong medicine, and that it was applied for far too long. The second crisis is the Covid-19 pandemic. May we all learn the lessons and act on them. I am glad that our National Health Service is now the National Health Service and social care—so a full implementation of the Dilnot report is a must.
Thankfully, no one now talks about how there is no “money tree”. The furlough scheme and support for people’s livelihoods has lifted our gaze to the horizon of hope. We are all in this together, in word and in deed, in ordering our society, our politics, our economy, with well-being and human flourishing as our aim. As the late Lord Jonathan Sacks said in the introduction to his book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times:
“Societal freedom cannot be sustained by market economics and liberal democratic politics alone. It needs a third element: morality, a concern for the welfare of others, an active commitment to justice and compassion, a willingness to ask not just what is good for me but what is ‘good for all of us together’. It is about ‘Us’, not ‘Me’; about ‘We’, not ‘I’.”
He goes on to say that we need some kind of moral community
“for there to be a society as opposed to a state. States function on the basis of power. But societies function on the basis of a shared vision of what unites the people who comprise it. Societies are moral communities. That was Lord Devlin's argument at the beginning of the great liberalisation debate in 1957.”
Even before the financial challenges and loss of livelihoods over the past year due to the various lockdown restrictions, the statistics for food banks told their own story of poverty, hunger, income inequality and the need to change. Just as the Covid-19 pandemic is a global challenge, food poverty is truly global, affecting the third world here, too, in the United Kingdom. Poverty—food poverty in particular—long predates the problems of the pandemic. It is good that the committee has already produced this comprehensive study of the elements which underlie the problems and is making serious proposals for change and reform. For example, paragraphs 68 and 69 of the report refer to the staggering increase in food bank use. This crisis of hunger is real. Marcus Rashford’s campaign calls us to slay this dragon together for the sake of our children —so well done, Marcus.
Consistently, research has shown that children need a good diet to learn effectively. When children come to school without having eaten properly, they are less likely to learn, thrive and progress, and their future chances will be impaired. That is why breakfast clubs were set up, so that those who are not getting a proper diet could be given the necessary advantages to help them flourish.
Last year, I led a debate in your Lordships’ House on income inequality. It was a debate of unanimity. Today, this report focuses on the dangerous consequences of food inequality and draws our attention to the costs of a healthy diet. We have heard in the last year of parents wondering if they can give their children more than bread and potatoes, and whether they should go without food themselves, or heating, to feed their families. How heart-breaking is that? Please, may the report’s recommendation in chapter 3 receive further assessment, so that practical proposals for radical change are brought forward.
A dismaying table at paragraph 173 on page 65 challenges all of us to have courage and imagination for our future, and the will and determination to see it through to its conclusion. Her Majesty’s Government has learned during the Covid-19 challenge that big government solutions are important for big problems. Free vaccination for all is a good example. Can the lessons learned be applied to government action for the health and well-being crisis? I pray that they can and will, and may it be soon, promising less and delivering more. This is a vital report which we want to take seriously. May the committee continue to work out practicalities which resolve. I congratulate the committee on this wonderful report.
My Lords, I warmly welcome the former Archbishop of York, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sentamu, on behalf of these Benches and the whole House. It is a great privilege to follow him in today’s debate, on his return to the House, and I am sure that his wisdom, compassion, and insight, will be valuable as we move forward in this new parliamentary session.
Hungry for Change outlines the challenges in health and production underlying our food system. Like others, I pay tribute to Marcus Rashford for his campaign last summer in extending the national voucher scheme. I also wish him and the entire English football team good fortune for their opening Euro 2021 match against Croatia this Sunday.
Food poverty remains a serious issue here in the UK, one which has been exacerbated by the economic hardships endured by low-income individuals during the Covid crisis. The Department for Work and Pensions HBAI statistics for 2020 identify 5 million people, including 1.7 million children, as experiencing food insecurity, and half of them had very low food security. Part of the problem is the lack of non-credit based lifelines for people facing financial crises, forcing them to incur debt to pay for essentials. Often this is not a one-off situation but the result of chronic income shortages, particularly where social security payments are reduced to pay debts.
Christians Against Poverty reported that 37% of its clients have sacrificed meals due to debt. A further 56% have borrowed money to pay for food, clothing and other living costs. There is a health and human cost to this. Christians Against Poverty reported diabetic clients relying on sugar water because of insufficient food and parents who avoided eating dinner so that their children could eat each night. Surely this should not be happening in a country as developed and wealthy as ours.
As identified in the Hungry for Change report, repayments of advance payments for universal credit often leave people without enough money for food, let alone a healthy diet. However, deductions for rent, utilities or council tax arrears, court fines or benefit overpayments also contribute to insufficient funds. As of January 2021, Citizens Advice estimated that
“over 3.5 million people are currently behind on council tax”,
largely due to lost income from the Covid pandemic.
The interconnectivity of health, food poverty and financial well-being calls for more generous repayment terms for both universal credit advance payments and other arrears, allowing for affordable repayments on an extended timeframe. The cap of 25% standard allowance does not factor in individuals who are already required to use part of their standard allowance to pay a rent top-up in cases where money provided for housing costs has been reduced.
One innovative way to deal with the issue of health and financial insecurity is the Centre for Responsible Credit’s Financial Shield programme currently being piloted in Lambeth and Southwark. The programme works within the existing NHS framework with GPs and community groups to identify individuals suffering poor health outcomes relating to debt. In particular, its joint debt protocol seeks to prevent creditors from competing for repayments from impoverished individuals. It organises repayment under a single recovery protocol, giving the debtor time and space without the threat of enforcement, which could further affect their health. Tackling the issue of arrears will inevitably lead to better health outcomes. Levelling up in the post-Covid era will require innovative mechanisms and ideas like the Financial Shield to tackle issues like debt and income insecurity that lead to poor diets.
On the production side, it is important that agriculture and food production are not treated in isolation but seen in the context of the overall sustainability of the rural economy and rural communities. Although agriculture is no longer the major source of employment it once was in rural areas, it continues to have a major impact on the overall economy and sustainability of rural areas. It is why the new environmental land management scheme, or ELMS, provides great significance to rural areas and the overall rural economy. We need to align the interests of our farmers and rural communities in tackling the issues of climate change and biodiversity loss.
Already, some of the pilot ELM programmes have raised concerns about ensuring the viability of farm businesses while delivering the vital landscape protections set out in the ELMS. Farmers want to do the right thing for nature but will need proper incentives, clarity of guidance and assistance. So I hope the Government will continue to monitor the situation and get this right when introducing the full scheme in 2024.
The increased focus on the importance of rural areas in providing natural capital and sustainable supply chains presents opportunities to create new, greener jobs. The Hungry for Change report focused on the need for stable and secure funding for research and development. I believe it would be a real boon to make rural areas the focus of this new infrastructure as part of a wider strategy to revitalise the rural economy. It is important the Government recognise the vital nature of rural economies in being at the very centre of the green revolution and come forward with a strategic vision for the rural economy that incorporates agriculture and food production, as promised in their response to the Lords Rural Economy Committee.
My Lords, it is a bit daunting to follow a Bishop and an ex-Archbishop. I wish to congratulate the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sentamu, on the rare achievement of a second maiden speech in this House. I served on the committee too, and I would like to pay tribute to the way the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, conducted the committee and marshalled the views, not only of a heterogeneous committee, but also of a wide range of witnesses. I would also like to put on record my thanks to the staff in producing this report.
Food, from farm to fork, is by far our largest single industry. It has repercussions for difficult areas of public policy on health and diet, the local and global environment, air, water and soil quality, our nature, countryside and biodiversity. It is noticeable that the distribution of the benefits and detriments in the way we deliver food creates severe social inequalities and some serious health dysfunctions. Healthy food is often not affordable, particularly among our poorest communities.
In this report, we have attempted to deal with all aspects, with recommendations that will involve several departments beyond Defra and the Department for International Trade. The same will be true of the report we hope to see shortly from Henry Dimbleby, the second stage of which I hope the Government will treat rather more seriously than their response to this report has yet shown. Our media is unaccountable: for some reason, the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, received rather less media attention than Marcus Rashford for his recommendations on school meals and universal credit. The Government did at least respond in part to that.
I wish to focus on a less obvious and more mundane aspect, which is the institutional one. My points relate to the structure of the food system as a whole and the ineffectiveness of the regulatory structure and enforcement we currently have. Our specific recommendations range from more effective local planning controls for retail outlets right through to the creation of an independent body analogous to the Committee on Climate Change. One key proposition is that we should reverse the decision made a decade ago and give the responsibility for nutrition, labelling and reformulation back to the Food Standards Agency.
At present, our regulatory system on food is concentrated on the two ends of the food chain—farmers and their methods, and consumer protection. Underlying the totality of the chain is the domination in the middle of it by major, often multinational, corporate players who largely escape criticism. The regulation on farmers is arguably about to become more complex through the new subsidy system replacing the CAP, which most of us support. The operation of public goods will be extremely complex, and the proposed ELMS and related interventions on agriculture to deliver public goods will inevitably involve a very sophisticated form of regulatory intervention. At the consumer end, both the Government and the report propose more sophisticated systems of labelling and consumer protection for safety and nutritional reasons. Again, those will need to be implemented in a way that improves the consumer experience rather than confuses the consumer. Between those two, regulation is and will be much less.
However, this market is hugely dominated by a limited number of large companies in the middle: the big supermarket retailers—obviously; the big processors and manufacturers; the big wholesalers and importers; and the big catering chains and food service companies. Although there is a market distortion in terms of a tendency to both oligopoly and oligopsony, it is in those fields where the decisions of those large companies determine the nature, quality and standards to which food is produced, the availability of it, and the price, and therefore affordability, to the ultimate consumers. Standards formulation and pricing conditions and, of course, advertising—the primary information that goes to consumers and smaller retail outlets—are dominated by the priorities of those companies.
There have been previous interventions. The relationship between the big supermarkets and farmers and other first-line producers were supposed to be regulated, or at least overseen, by the groceries code. To be fair, some of the standards and contract formulations have significantly improved for small producers, but not only has enforcement been extremely light-touch, but the reality is that the groceries code deals with only a small part of the issue and is largely confined to the large supermarkets dealing directly with primary producers, whereas the reality is that virtually the whole of our largest sector, the food chain as a whole, is a markets and competition issue, with wider repercussions for consumer protection and health and environmental impacts.
Given the externalities we have been concerned about in this debate, on the environment and on health, we need to take further steps. To take two examples, advertising expenditure by the large companies in the food chain is 40 times larger on confectionery than it is on fresh food and vegetables. No wonder our consumer diets are so far from ideal. The balance of market power between processors and primary producers means that, for most farmers, there is no profit without subsidy, and the new agricultural regime will not change that. The office of the Groceries Code Adjudicator is inadequate to the task. We need a much more effective body and, although the report does not spell this out in detail, it points inexorably in that direction.
I have a final point. Trade is a vital part of our food chain and imports provide us with key products, but when most assessments of sustainability in our food system emphasise the desirability of shorter supply chains, the Government’s emphasis is to prioritise a trade deal with Australia—one which potentially undermines our environmental and welfare standards and which appears to be concluded without a view from the safeguarding mechanism we all agreed in the process of delivering the Agriculture Act: the statutory Trade and Agriculture Commission. If we go down that road, it will not improve the health and diet of our nation, nor will it improve the environment. It may drive out a few livestock producers, but it will provide no solution to the problem that this report identifies.
My Lords, the importance of this Select Committee report cannot be overestimated, and I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, for his chairmanship and leadership of the committee. I also thank my fellow members and the staff for their diligence and enthusiasm throughout the meetings of the committee.
There is no doubt that food, its quality, access and affordability, is fundamental in its impact on people’s lives, especially for children, as it not only affects their present well-being and health but will be a major determinant of their future lives and, indeed, their health and life expectancy. Yet, as the evidence in this report points out, and other Members have also pointed out, large numbers of children do not get enough to eat. They live in families that cannot afford enough food to feed them, let alone afford a healthy diet. I shall limit my remarks today to some of the recommendations relating to chapter 3 of the report and the Government’s response.
The report recommends:
“The Government should embed consideration of the cost of the Eatwell Guide into calculations of benefit payment rates ... the Government should undertake a fuller assessment of the cost of a healthy and sustainable diet. The cost of the Government’s dietary guidance should be built in as a reference point to consideration of government interventions, including those relating to welfare and public food provision.”
This seems to me to be a very important recommendation and, as others have said, we are disappointed by the Government’s response to it.
The report points out that families already disadvantaged are penalised through the benefits system.
“The Food Foundation estimate … that only 53% of households spent at least enough to follow the Government’s Eatwell guidance.”
As the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has already said, the report also stated 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.”
This seems absolutely breath-taking. What on earth is the purpose of recommending a diet that cannot be afforded by those who most need it? The Government must seek a fuller understanding on whether their dietary guidance is affordable if they are at all serious about fighting obesity. Healthy food costs much more, calorie for calorie, than unhealthy food, so it is no surprise that the poor suffer not only deprivation but threats to their own health from obesity through not being able to afford anything more than cheap food.
The report says:
“There are a series of hurdles to overcome to access a healthy diet.”
These mean that
“it is significantly harder for people with a lower income to access a healthy diet. The current food system requires much more of people with fewer resources.”
Yet the Government say in their response:
“To embed the consideration of the cost of the Eatwell Guide into the calculation of benefit and pension rates would require an amendment to the up-rating primary legislation.”
Really? Is this such a barrier to being able to include this in calculations of benefit to ensure that people receiving benefits are not excluded from healthy food as well, as so many other things? For these reasons, the Government say they will not be including the cost of the Eatwell Guide in the calculation of benefit rates. I believe this is a very damning indictment of this Government. What we are really saying here is that people who cannot afford food should not have access to a healthy diet, and I believe that most of us would consider that totally unacceptable.
The report says:
“The Government should be fully aware of the cost of eating the diet it recommends, and the ability of different demographic groups to access this diet. To underpin any national food strategy, the Government must, in its 2021 review of benefits rates, commit to giving its dietary guidance—the Eatwell Guide—a firm place in the development of policy.”
I believe this is crucial to any future food policy.
“Written evidence from the Government stated that income-related benefit rates: ‘Derive from a review in the 1980s’ rather than being based on a ‘single mathematical calculation or historic set of rules’. This means that benefits are not based on an understanding of how much things cost or a representative household budget.”
Again, the Government’s response is at best underwhelming and at worst quite shocking:
“PHE will explore options on assessing the cost of a healthy balanced diet”.
I suspect that most of us would think Public Health England probably has quite enough on its plate at the moment and that there really is a clear need for action. We heard repeatedly from people giving evidence to the committee that the Government have carried out repeated consultations, investigations and inquiries, and that much has been written, yet little is being achieved.
“Given the enormous economic cost to the NHS and wider society of failing to encourage healthy diets, we find it puzzling that the Eatwell Guide is not used by the Government in the calculation of benefit payment rates. Ensuring that the large (and, recently, dramatically increasing) number of people in receipt of universal credit are able to afford a healthy diet could be a sensible economic step”,
we are told in the report.
The fact that healthy food is not affordable by poorer families particularly penalises the poor, and disadvantaged children will suffer the future costs of poor health and the threat of obesity in adulthood. Not including the cost of food in the calculation of benefit is a huge mistake that will be paid for in costs to the NHS of this regressive and damaging policy. Should not any policy of recovery from the pandemic include measures to invest in the health of our nation, in terms of reform of our food systems, as this report proposes? We should be using this opportunity of building back better to face up to the issues of food insecurity, diet-related ill-health and food sustainability described in this report. The report provides not only a vision of what could be achieved but a comprehensive plan for achieving it, and I very much hope we will pursue its objectives into the future.
My Lords, perhaps I may add my voice to those who have welcomed back the noble Lord, Lord Sentamu. His has always been an original and powerful voice, often raised on behalf of those who have no other voice. Its echoing around this Chamber will enrich and elevate our counsels.
I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, for bringing his trained scientific mind to this important issue. I wanted to focus on one statistic that he quoted from the report, which was that in order to follow the recommended dietary guidelines, for the richest 10% it would require 6% of their post-housing disposable income, and for the poorest decile 74%. Please bear those figures in mind when we hear people talking dismissively of cheap food. When did “cheap” become an insult? The fall in price of high-quality and nutritious food has been transformative for people around the world. One rarely hears the word “cheap” used in that way by the 70% of human beings who cannot yet afford a washing machine.
Of course, the price of food is not the sole or even the main determinant of poverty. One could argue that the price of housing and the knock-on impact is more immediate. Indeed, one could argue that poverty is bound up with a number of other non-economic factors such as substance abuse, family breakdown and poor educational qualifications. However, the thing about the price of food is that we can do something about it easily and at no real cost to anyone else, because all we need to do is remove some of the obstacles between the suppliers and the people who want to get it.
I am struck by how often there seems to be a mismatch in the way in which people discuss this issue. Noble Lords in this Chamber and many more outside will talk, on the one hand, about the need to address food poverty and then, moments later, make a paradigm shift and start talking about how dangerous all these trade deals are, and how we need to protect our domestic farmers and markets and to keep prices up. It is as though there are two circles that do not overlap —but they should do. The idea that it is progressive and humane to be in favour of cheaper food but somehow cold, capitalist and heartless to be in favour of free trade would have seemed utterly bizarre at almost any moment in the past 200 years.
Free trade was always a progressive cause and seen as a way to end the racket whereby poorer people subsidised wealthier people. If you consider free trade’s great exponents, they were all, by the standards of their day, what we would now call progressives. The Adam Smiths and the David Ricardos were campaigners for abolition, a wider franchise and reforms of the Poor Law. All over Europe there was a strong overlap between people who favoured freer trade and people who favoured the reduction of monarchical and aristocratic power, the extension of the franchise and so on.
Let me quote, more or less at random, the leader of the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union in 1884, who said:
“The natural effect of Protection is to restrict trade, and restriction means less of everything for the working classes.”
That would have been a recognisable Labour sentiment well into the mid-20th century. Philip Snowden used to talk about that as the “free breakfast table” because he understood that the best way to improve the lives of people on low incomes would be to remove the unnecessary costs that were there to protect domestic cartels. Why has that changed? Why do we now have this peculiar debate whereby we have, if one likes, gone back to those pre-modern notions of protection? It is natural, almost inevitable, in politics for there to be a shift from consumer to producer interests, especially where those producers are either politically connected or have a sentimental hold on the imagination.
Part of that, I have to say, seems to be a little bit of nostalgia about having left the European Union. I am struck by how many people, including some noble Lords, make the argument that we should have absolutely unrestricted free trade in food with the 27 countries of the EU but not really with anyone else. It must be one or the other. We heard a little hint of that from the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, a moment ago when he was talking about freer trade with Australia somehow being bad for consumers in this country. Australia has exceptionally high food and welfare standards. The idea that restoring the commercial relationship that we had with Australia before the 1970s is somehow going to be deleterious to British consumers is seen as absurd by British consumers, as a mountain of polling evidence shows.
Then there is the biggest change. I go back to what the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said in another passage of his speech about our being attracted to salt and sugar because we have those ancient instincts. That is absolutely right. We have those caveman heuristics—intuitions that were evolved for an altogether hungrier world. We are not designed for this life of skyscrapers and super-abundance. One of those instincts is a deep genetic desire to hoard food. We want to be able to see it and to know that we are able to get through the winter. The idea of depending on strangers for food that we cannot see, which is the basis of a modern economy, does not come naturally. It offends our inner caveman.
For that reason, it is always possible to get a certain amount of popular support by saying, “We should be self-sufficient. We should grow more of our own stuff”. One would be speaking to and for all those Neolithic inner cavemen wandering the savannahs of Pleistocene Africa. The trouble is that every country that has tried to do that has made itself not just poorer but hungrier. I illustrate that with examples from two ends of the spectrum. The country that has most obsessively pursued self-sufficiency in food and elevated it to the supreme governing principle is North Korea. It is called Juche. Everything that is imported can be substituted. The country at the other end of the scale, which imports everything, barely produces one edible ounce and relies on imports for its food, water and electricity, is Singapore. It has the cheapest and most secure food supplies in the world. Where would you rather live, my Lords? Where would you rather be as a person in the bottom decile? North Korea is the last place that has manmade famines; Singapore is a place where people simply would not recognise a debate like this about absence of food.
It is our role as a Chamber to overcome the misleading algorithms inherited from our hunter-gatherer past. We are here as an upper House precisely to be a cool, rational and cautious voice, to stand against those intuitive but sometimes incorrect promptings. That is why I hope that this House will take the opportunity to restate its support for freer commerce, especially in those commodities that make up the biggest share of the income of the poorest people. Free trade is the ultimate mechanism of poverty reduction, conflict resolution and social justice.
My Lords, I welcome the report of the Select Committee on Food, Poverty, Health and Environment addressing the important issue of failures in food. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, for his introduction to this debate and fully support the points he made.
During the pandemic, there have been programmes that ensure access to food for many who were unable to leave their homes during lockdown. For those deemed clinically extremely vulnerable or “shielders”, many programmes were set up around the country to ensure that they did not go without food or other essential supplies. However, we know that for non-sheilding vulnerable people, many of whom were over the age of 70, those programmes were not available. A survey conducted by Independent Age in May 2020 found that 48% of people in that group were struggling to access food during the first lockdown.
Ensuring that people have access to healthy food is an essential component of prevention in healthcare. Preventing many serious and avoidable long-term health issues resulting from poor diet requires collaboration across government departments, local authorities, third-sector organisations, community groups and the business community. An example of this is local planning. Local authorities should have the power to restrict the number of unhealthy food retailers. At the same time, local and central government should set policies that help to make healthy food options available in all UK communities.
It would be very easy to see only business, and specifically food retailers, as part of the problem. I welcome the recommendation in this report to work with the food industry to reform and reduce salt, sugar and unhealthy fats. Engaging the talent and creativity of the business community and working closely with food producers and retailers are key to improving diets. The role of government should be to foster an environment that incentivises businesses to support healthy diets as part of healthy living. Food producers and retailers are as important to the prevention agenda as the NHS. Through such a partnership there is a real opportunity to meet the Government’s guidelines of halving childhood obesity by the end of this decade. As part of a broader campaign of prevention, there is an opportunity to reduce the diagnoses of many preventable diseases. Given this, I hope the Government’s 2019 manifesto commitment to support people to live
“at least 5 extra healthy, independent years of life by 2035, while narrowing the gap between the experience of the richest and poorest”
remains a priority. But it has been largely ignored until now.
A key component of prevention is a healthy diet and nutrition. It is common knowledge that the prevalence of conditions such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and many cancers can be reduced through a good diet. Conversely, these conditions can be exacerbated through diets with high levels of sugar, salt, saturates and calories and low amounts of fruit and vegetables.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, we know those with underlying health conditions, such as type 2 diabetes or lung problems, are at a greater risk of hospitalisation or death if they catch the virus. As part of any preparations for future pandemics or similar public health crises, better resourcing of prevention is going to be critical. Ensuring we do all we can to prevent food insecurity and promote healthy diets is a key health priority and will help prepare our society for any future pandemics. Therefore, high-profile education programmes and collaboration across public and private sector bodies are absolutely essential, and they must be speedily introduced.
My Lords, I congratulate the committee on its report and welcome its unequivocal message that food insecurity is “a symptom of poverty”—which is the focus of my contribution.
As it happens, I spoke yesterday at the launch of an in-depth study of food poverty by Rebecca O’Connell and Julia Brannen of UCL’s Institute of Education. Like the committee, they underlined the importance of food as a symbolic as well as a material resource—one which
“mediates social relations and can bestow social status”,
with implications not just for health but for how people, especially mothers, are judged.
But recognition of the importance of food must not detract from the key message that, in the committee’s words:
“Food insecurity is a consequence of poverty.”
The same message comes from charities such as the Trussell Trust, which has documented the growing reliance on food banks, especially among disabled people and lone mothers, who the UCL research found to be among the most deprived households.
The Trussell Trust is clear that the problem lies not in access to food but in the growing number with insufficient resources to afford an adequate diet. The committee warns:
“The Government should not be reliant on charitable food aid to plug the holes in the welfare system”
“is failing to provide adequate support to people in the lowest income groups.”
The committee was clearly shocked by some of the evidence it received, leading it to conclude that
“there are many children in this country living with constant or intermittent hunger”—
one end of a “spectrum of food insecurity” in which people in poverty find it increasingly difficult to access a healthy diet.
Since the report, the evidence has accumulated further. Underlying it is a worrying increase in deep poverty, to which the Social Metrics Commission, among others, has drawn attention. Indeed, the latest official data show that two-thirds of the growing number of children in poverty are in deep poverty. According to analysis by Leeds University, children in larger families and from black, Asian and other minority ethnic backgrounds are particularly at risk. Trussell Trust data show that 95% of people referred to food banks in early 2020 could be classified as destitute.
I have to say that I find the Government’s response to the committee’s concerns about poverty shockingly inadequate. Other than replying to specific recommendations, they in effect ignored all the underlying messages about poverty and hunger. Of course, most of the poverty-related recommendations were rejected, though I do welcome the commitment to the continued inclusion of food security questions in the Family Resources Survey. The most recent such data showed that, even before the pandemic, over two-fifths of universal credit households had experienced high or very high levels of food insecurity in the previous 30 days. Such a finding must surely lead the Government to reconsider the decision to end the £20 uplift in the autumn, as called for by the Food Foundation and many others. The welcome original introduction of the uplift was a tacit acknowledgement that UC is too low.
As already noted, the committee recommended:
“The Government should embed consideration of the cost of the Eatwell Guide into calculations of benefit payment rates … Written evidence from the Government stated that”
these benefit rates
“derive from a review in the 1980s.”
I do not recall that review being published but, given that it was 40 years ago and that UC was presented as such a fundamental reform, and given the growing evidence of hardship and food insecurity among those reliant on UC, is it not time the Government undertook another review of the adequacy of benefits? I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts on that.
In drawing attention to the growing number of children whose families need to turn to a food bank, the Trussell Trust notes the role played by the two-child limit and benefit cap in the increased food insecurity experienced by larger families. In a recent QSD, I asked the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman-Scott, what assessment the Government had made of the impact on child poverty of the refusal to rethink the two-child limit—condemned by three of the UK Children’s Commissioners as a clear breach of children’s human rights. I also asked for a review the benefit cap as a matter of urgency, as called for by the Economic Affairs Committee back in December. She simply restated the Government’s position without answering the question about a poverty impact assessment. I take it from that that the Government have made no such assessment. Is the same true of these policies’ impact on food insecurity among children? If the Government fail to carry out such assessments, it raises serious questions about their stated commitment to tackling child poverty and food insecurity. Just yesterday, over 150 children’s organisations published a statement calling for a cross-government vision for childhood, starting with a long-term solution to child poverty, which is sadly lacking at the current time, when paid work is increasingly failing to provide protection against poverty.
Turning to the Government’s response to three other committee recommendations: first, I am afraid it is simply not good enough to bat away the call for an urgent overhaul of the five-week wait for UC with the claim that no new claimant need wait five weeks, given the availability of advance payments. The committee had already anticipated that response when citing the Trussell Trust’s description of it as a choice between
“destitution now or destitution later”
and concluding that
“the repayment of advances still creates significant problems.”
Both the Economic Affairs Committee report and the Work and Pensions Committee report, published subsequently but referenced by the committee, reached similar conclusions and suggested how the five-week wait could be overhauled. Given the Economic Affairs Committee’s observation that the wait
“is the primary cause of insecurity”
in UC, and the growing evidence of the hardship it causes, I call on the Government to think again.
Secondly, the committee rightly notes the particular vulnerability of those with no recourse to public funds, highlighted too by the Trussell Trust as at “particular risk of destitution” and in the UCL research which found such families were
“living in situations of extreme uncertainty and insecurity.”
The book quotes one child, not entitled to free school meals because of the rule, as saying the pain in his stomach from hunger
“was like I got stabbed with a knife and it’s still there.”
Thankfully, the Government extended entitlement to some no-recourse families during the pandemic and are currently reviewing the situation for the longer term. In a recent Commons debate, the Under-Secretary of State for Education said the department hoped to report back “soon”. Is the Minister able to say how soon, given that that is a rather elastic term in the government lexicon? However, welcome as this review is, it goes only a small way towards ensuring that those with no recourse to public funds
“are able to access sufficient, nutritious food”,
as called for by the committee.
Finally, the report underlines the importance of school meals and makes a number of recommendations which there is not time to go into. However, I draw attention to part 1 of the report of the National Food Strategy, published shortly after the committee’s report. Among other things, this called for free school meals to cover all children in families on UC, as already mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Sanderson, and for the provision of meals during all school holidays, demands which received the support of 1.1 million members of the public when included in a petition by Marcus Rashford, who, as already mentioned, has done so much to shame the Government into action. In their response to the committee report, the Government say that they will respond to the food strategy review within six months of its final report. That is all well and good, but how many more children will suffer hunger in the meantime? The title of the report we are debating today, Hungry for Change, suggests an urgency that is absent from the Government’s response to it. I hope that, in his reply, the Minister will acknowledge the need for urgent action to address widespread food insecurity and the poverty underlying it, particularly among children.
My Lords, I too was privileged to be a member of this committee and, like other noble Lords, I put on record my appreciation of the sterling chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and the excellent support the committee received from its clerk, analysts, administrative assistants and special advisers. I believe that the committee was held at the right time. Clearly, huge issues are building up and they have all been exacerbated by subsequent events, the pandemic and the way things have developed in the 12 months or so since we reported.
Little did I think when I signed up for this debate that we would be discussing cavemen and hunter-gatherers, who seem to have come on to the agenda. However, I understand on what that is based. Normally, I would say that people should be free to eat what they want, buy what they want, and so on. That is all well and good, but the evidence that the committee received, which in many respects was quite shocking, illustrated that this is not an area where the state itself can merely be an observer. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, made some controversial remarks earlier in the debate. I would not go as far as he has but, having represented an inner-city area for over 25 years, I have seen at first hand how a cycle develops. We may have a standard image of somebody cooking at home and so on, but those lifestyles have changed and gone and have been replaced by fast-food outlets.
An advertisement in my former constituency that caught my eye was for the “gut-buster” at £4.99. In other words, as was pointed out, it is for the maximum: a large portion of chips, and the bigger, the better. That is how products are marketed. The facts are that products that are high in calories are those that sell because they are cheaper and people get at least a feeling that they have eaten something and it will keep them going. The price is due to the nature of the products that are sold at that price point, but I point out that it is not simply about supermarkets; there are many other wholesalers, street vendors, and so on. As was pointed out, the recommended diets, which cost up to 74% of disposable income for some groups, are completely irrelevant, and in fact the difference between that and the reality is almost grotesque. That we do not take that into account in the calculation of UC makes me feel that perhaps we would do as well not even to publicise it, because the gap between the reality and the ideal is so great.
School meals was one of the issues that came up, and of course that got an exceptionally high profile as a result of the pandemic and the campaigns to keep school meals going during the summer months. However, there is an issue with school meals, which is that of stigma. In many cases, where you have schools where pupils go to lunch together and some are in receipt of free school meals and others are not, it creates circumstances where in some cases parents, to save their children embarrassment, do not even take up the opportunity or offer of free school meals. To make school meals more universal would be one way of avoiding that and ensuring that people get at least one decent meal a day.
We heard evidence that teachers were helping some pupils coming in in the morning who had clearly not had a proper breakfast. We know that if children do not receive adequate nutrition, their capacity to learn is dramatically reduced. There is widespread evidence to support this proposition. When one looks at the costs in an area of ignoring these issues, where obesity is out of control, we have huge long-term health issues. Not only do people suffer a shorter life, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, pointed out, but the quality of that life dramatically deteriorates with age. If people are obese, they have huge mobility issues, you have the requirement perhaps for electric wheelchairs and people getting vehicles, and of course more frequent admissions to hospital, and so on. A vast cost is building up in the health service as a result of ignoring these issues.
The evidence was clear that the sugar levy had worked, but I think the state will have to intervene further with regard to salt and other matters. I would much prefer that people were able to make their own choices, but the reality is that, with the way things are in our society at the moment, that is not working.
It would be useful for the committee, under the new rules that the House is introducing on follow-up to committees, if, in a year’s time or whenever, we had some sort of follow-up to this to monitor progress. It is easy to bat off a committee’s report by saying “We’ll have a look at this and report back”, but the truth is that inertia in these matters is a very powerful force.
The noble Lord, Lord Hannan, made another point about having access to low-cost food imports and not having to ensure that we are self-sufficient. I understand his argument but he will recall what happened to this country during World War Two: there was a direct attempt to starve us out. There has to be a balance, because there is quite clearly a national security imperative to ensure that we at least have the capacity in extremis to keep our people fed.
Again, I thank the chair and am grateful for the backup support that the committee received. The question is out there, but will we do anything about this? I believe that only sustained, consistent pressure will ensure that we deliver an outcome that will help those people who are struggling to feed their families today.
I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and all the members of the committee for the excellent work that they have done and the recommendations they have brought before us, and thank them for the opportunity to debate these issues today. I welcome back to this House the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sentamu; it is good to see him back in his new position and we warmly welcome him today.
I want to respond to some of the issues that have been raised, taking a more global and outward-looking approach. In particular, I am delighted that so much of the work done by the committee chimes with, as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, indicated, the work of Henry Dimbleby in his report, which I will come to in a moment.
I always rise to the opportunity presented when my noble friend Lord Hannan of Kingsclere lays down a challenge, to which I shall respond. My noble friend said that free trade is a progressive cause. I would go further and say that it is a little like communism: it sounds excellent in principle but is very difficult to achieve in practice. He asked why a number of us, and I include myself in this regard, would like to see unrestricted free trade with the EU and no other trade with others. Of course, we went further than free trade: we were in a single market and a customs union. I am not quite sure why we have to keep repeating this, but that is the state that we are in. Why, as my noble friend asked, do I take that particular view? I am always mindful of my late mother spending her formative years under German occupation in Copenhagen having her freedom and liberty stolen from her, and I know that was experienced by the parents of many others across the Chamber. I believe that at the time, pooling our sovereignty was a very natural way forward.
Why do I see problems with countries such as Australia that my noble friend Lord Hannan does not foresee? It is very clear that Australia does not produce meat to the same high standards—which both my noble friend Lord Hannan and I, as MEPs at the time, were party to imposing—that our producers in this country have to meet. In my time, it was the sow stall and tether ban that we introduced unilaterally. That put 50% of pig producers out of business in this country, which I do not think was the intention of the law. Australia, regrettably, does not meet those high standards. It allows much longer distances for animal transport than we would possibly allow in this country or any other part of the EU’s remaining membership. It uses pesticides such as paraquat, which we have banned in this country and in the EU, and tolerates hormones in beef production, which not only do I find unpalatable but is something that I think British consumers will not tolerate. It is fair to say that these issues must be brought to the table when we discuss any free trade and lowering of tariffs with countries such as Australia.
Other reasons for us to do free trade with countries in the EU are that they are there, they are close, we have historic and cultural links, and environmentally it makes sense that we do not transport animals or wine halfway around the world. Our carbon costs are lower by trading with our near neighbours. I thought that was one of the principal policies of TTIP and why in particular the Pacific Rim countries trade so well together: they have a natural affinity and partnership there. That does not prevent us from doing deals with them, but we realise that there are additional costs that we will have to meet.
I am delighted that the report addresses issues such as self-sufficiency and food security. It also touches on the issue of Covid. I pay my tribute not just to those in the farming community who work extra hours in all weathers but to those working in supermarkets and the supply chains to make sure that the shortages that were much feared at the start of the pandemic never materialised. How the question of import substitution and increased self-sufficiency will play out now that we have left the EU is something that remains to be seen.
I understand from reports, notably in the Grocer, that the department has replied privately, sotto voce, to the interim National Food Strategy: Part One from Henry Dimbleby and his team. I urge the Minister—we have worked together before and I am delighted to see him back in this place—to ensure that the Government publish that and to endeavour to ensure that his department, as other noble Lords have pleaded, brings all the strands of the legislation together, particularly the Agriculture Act, the Environment Bill and the Trade Act, as well as all the benefits under the DWP, along with the Department of Health and Social Care, to make sure that we tackle food poverty and food security.
I pay tribute to those such as the Yorkshire Agricultural Society who do such good work in opening up the countryside to schoolchildren and indeed adults to demonstrate where our food comes from. What I regret in this debate more than anything else is the fact that towns, cities, market towns, countryside and rural life are further apart today than ever in my lifetime. I look at countries such as Ireland and to a certain extent Scotland and Denmark, where there is a very strong link with the production of food and the food industry. Even rural and urban France are not that close, but the food production industry and farmers in France are heard much more clearly than farmers would argue they are in this country. That is something we are very mindful of.
One policy that I am particularly worried about is the recent government consultation on animal movement. If that were to jeopardise in any way the ability of our farmers to get their meat to market or indeed the future of country shows, large and small, across the country, that would be a very regrettable move. I hope the Minister will take this opportunity to say there will be no legislation that could lead to any ban that would mean further difficulty in accessing abattoirs or that the future of our country shows might be in doubt.
I support the words of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, by drawing on recommendations 5, 6 and 7 in the interim National Food Strategy: Part One from Henry Dimbleby and his team. It says very specifically that:
“The Government should only agree to cut tariffs in new trade deals on products which meet our core standards.”
That to me is key. Whether it is regarding animal welfare, animal health or environmental production, we must make sure that having—dare I say?—clobbered our farmers with these increased costs, which our consumers support, we do right by them by ensuring that any imported foods meet the same high standards.
The report says in recommendation 6 that:
“The Government should give itself a statutory duty to commission an independent report on all proposed trade agreements”,
and goes on to say that the timing is key. I record my disappointment that the new trade and agriculture commission is not in place at a time when many of these trade agreements are going through.
“The Government should adopt a statutory duty to give Parliament the time and opportunity to properly scrutinise any new trade deal.”
If colleagues are right and free trade is the brave new world, why should we be shy about debating it? Let us look at the issues. Let us not bring them out at the last possible minute, but embrace them, scrutinise them properly and make sure that we do right by those who work in all weathers to bring food to our table—our forgotten heroes, the farmers and food producers of this country.
My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and his committee for their extraordinarily valuable and challenging report. It covers and makes recommendations on many of the key strategic challenges we face, not just in the United Kingdom, but globally. I draw attention to my interests recorded in the register. In particular, I chair the Prince’s Countryside Fund and the Cawood Group, which provides analytical services to the agri-food, environmental and waste sectors. I am also president of Social Farms & Gardens. I welcome back the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sentamu, and thank him for his speech. As a Northumbrian living not so far from Lindisfarne and very close to the history of St Cuthbert, I welcomed his comments.
First, while the Government’s response to the report is welcome, it is easy to delay action on a number of key concerns while waiting for Henry Dimbleby’s stage 2 report. The Government are fuelling an expectation that Henry will address the issues, and I am sure he will, so we can anticipate a positive and clear response from the Government after his report is released. I hope the Minister appreciates that he will have the task of managing our expectations.
I focus on a number of related issues. The fundamental challenges that the report highlights have already been mentioned in this debate: child poverty, healthy school meals, food insecurity, the composition of processed food, obesity and dietary health, and a net-zero environmental impact from food production. Many of these have been accentuated by Covid and lockdown, but have been trending worse and worse for at least two or three decades, perhaps longer. Successive Governments have tried to intervene in a variety of ways, with limited success, so all the evidence suggests that tinkering at the edges will not succeed.
It is almost 20 years since I was part of an obesity taskforce—and look at how much worse the problem is now. This is an embarrassingly acute crisis. The report highlights the serious societal cross-cutting issues and all government departments need to commit to a strategic plan to address them. If ever there was a need to see evidence of joined-up government action, it is now, on these issues.
Let me refer to some specifics. First, on public procurement, in the 2000s, I spent years working with local authorities, contractors, schools, hospitals, et cetera, along with the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, trying to promote sustainable and healthy sourcing of food. It is hard work to change a culture driven by economics that has no regard to the impact it might be having on health or the environment, but it is possible. It requires sustained effort and ongoing monitoring. It beggars belief that we spend billions on the procurement of public food for a wide range of institutions from prisons to government departments and everything in between—schools, hospitals, et cetera—without having clear national specifications on nutritional and environmental standards. Government can directly influence this and numerous local initiatives have succeeded for at least a while, but it requires sustained discipline and constant oversight to become firmly embedded within policy and systems. I would like the Minister to comment on that.
I also endorse the comments of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, in stressing the importance of retaining a viable family farm network in the management of our countryside and ensuring that the market for healthy sustainable food is not undermined by cheap lower-standard imports. Like the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, I would be failing in my responsibility if I did not refer to the current uncertainty around the Australian deal and the lack of opportunity to scrutinise it by the trade and agriculture commission, which has not yet been established, and to debate it in this House. I endorse what the noble Baroness said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, about free trade deals. I desperately want to sign a free trade deal with Australia, provided Australian farmers are subject to the same standards that we are. That would be good. I just remind the noble Lord that Singapore does not have any farmers to worry about.
Secondly, we have all been shocked by how many households and individuals have become dependent on food banks. In an advanced society like ours, this is a serious indictment. However, I am not of the view that this is a perfect indicator of poverty levels, but others who have spoken on this topic are much better qualified than I am. It is a complex issue and will not simply be resolved by throwing more cash at the problem, although this may be necessary. To undertake an analysis of what a sustainable and healthy diet would cost and how it relates to current levels of benefits and universal credit would be useful, but other measures are also essential to address the fundamental problems that we face.
I have been impressed by the work of Christians Against Poverty, for example, which was mentioned earlier in the debate by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, and its work to help willing households and families, in crisis, to better manage their weekly budgets, recover from indebtedness and, I hope, eat healthier diets in the process. This help, together with access to healthy raw ingredients and the ability to prepare and cook healthy meals, is essential if this issue is to be addressed and dependence on food banks and the consumption of processed unhealthy food is to be reduced. I encourage the Government to help and support such bodies undertaking this crucial service.
Finally, I address a hobbyhorse of mine: that of helping schoolchildren to better understand the importance of food—where it comes from, how to prepare it, how it can influence their health and how incredibly important their decisions are when they are filling a shopping basket. Visiting the countryside and farms to see how food is grown, how animals are cared for and why food production is an important function of farming businesses and the management of the countryside are important influences. They also begin to have their minds opened to environmental issues, what sustainability means and how their decisions and their families’ decisions can make a real difference to their carbon footprint. Linking these experiences to cooking in schools—domestic science or whatever the topic is called—and integrating curriculum lessons and projects over a wide range of subjects, which can be done, will influence their attitudes and diets, and begin to reverse the current trends for this and future generations.
Wherever possible, we should endeavour to link local sourcing to procurement of food for local schools, and encourage schools to visit the farms that supply them. Inner-city schools are more of a challenge, but I have hosted thousands of inner-city schoolchildren on my farm and they have hugely benefited from the experience. It all makes complete sense to me and it works, but it requires effort on the part of the Government, Defra, the Department for Education and local authorities all working together. Being an optimist, I live in hope that it might be possible to deliver this on a national scale. As far as Defra is concerned, it is essential that public access within ELMS includes educational school visits, and that all farms that are equipped and willing to host school visits are encouraged to do so, with this included within the scope of the definition of public good, not just for the higher-tier scheme, but for all three tiers. I hope the Minister confirms this.
In conclusion, I restate that we are facing the consequences of decades of worsening trends. It will take decades of concerted effort to turn these around and reverse what we are seeing around us every day. That will be achieved only if this Government and future Governments commit to an integrated programme of action, across all departments, and apply it locally as well as nationally.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Curry, who has such a tremendous background in farming and food. I welcome the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sentamu, to your Lordships’ House on his return and his second maiden speech.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, on securing this important debate and commend him on chairing our scrutiny committee and publishing our report, Hungry for Change, in July last year. I was proud to join the committee in February 2020 as the pandemic situation was unfolding, because that was an important test whereby it was possible to assess the resilience of our food system. In May and June we had several remote meetings of the committee to deal with our report and take further evidence from government Ministers, including Health Minister Jo Churchill.
I agree with other noble Lords—the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, and the noble Lord, Lord Curry—that there should be commendation, praise and support for our food producers, whether of the land or of the sea. We should support a viable farming industry and a viable fishing industry. In that respect, it is therefore important that we as the House of Lords and Parliament be allowed to scrutinise those trade deals, because I am in no doubt that the quality of our food produce of the land and the sea is equal to, if not better than, that of the produce we may import. It is important that those safeguards are in place and, for that to happen, parliamentary protocol and parliamentary accountability are absolutely vital.
Our committee found that:
“The UK’s food system—the production, manufacture, retail and consumption of food—is failing.”
We made a series of recommendations to which other noble Lords have referred. They were all
“built around the central aim of ensuring that everyone, regardless of income, has access to a healthy and sustainable diet.”
There are stark contrasts in the way that people experience food. The report argued:
“For many people, food is the source of considerable anxiety. Significant numbers of people are unable to access the food they need, let alone access a healthy diet.”
It also highlighted that the NHS spends billions of pounds every year
“treating significant, but avoidable, levels of diet-related obesity and non-communicable disease.”
In addition, our report revealed that:
“The food industries, manufacturers, retailers and the food services sector, perpetuate the demand for less healthy, highly processed products. This not only impacts on public health, but also inhibits efforts to produce food in an environmentally sustainable way.”
The report made significant recommendations, focused on the need to initiate routine levels of food security; to make urgent changes to universal credit; to factor in the cost of a healthy diet to benefit rates; to publish consultations on
“proposals to impose restrictions on the marketing, advertising and price promotion of less healthy foods”;
to step up
“efforts to encourage the food industry to reformulate its products to reduce harmful levels of salt, sugar and unhealthy types of fats”;
to extend and reform Healthy Start vouchers, free school meals and holiday hunger programmes; and to create a standardised framework for every public good outlined in the agriculture legislation. We push and urge the Government to ensure they stand by their commitment not to
“compromise on … high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards”
in trade agreements, to which I have already referred; and to establish an
“independent body, responsible for strategic oversight of the implementation of the National Food Strategy.”
Notwithstanding that the Government in their response are moving along our trajectory, they seem a little dilatory about implementing our recommendations. Last year they published their Childhood Obesity report; I urge the Government to implement their own recommendations. In other respects, they reacted only when Marcus Rashford shamed them into doing so in his campaign to end child food poverty and feed vulnerable children over the summer vacation amid the economic disruption caused by Covid.
Sadly, there are no real commitments on addressing the needs of the food environment or reformulation, and no engagement with the recommendation to return responsibility for nutrition labelling and reformulation programmes to the Food Standards Agency. I ask the Minister, whom I welcome back to the Dispatch Box—when we were all in the other place, he was a very good agriculture and fisheries Minister—why this is the case. Can he explain the delay in addressing these issues amid a pandemic that has exposed the fragility and insecurity of our food system?
There needs to be a root-and-branch review of the whole benefits system and a permanent uplift to universal credit. I commend the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, in this regard.
In 2021 the Food Foundation published its report, The Impact of Covid-19 on Household Food Security, which in many ways chimed with recommendations in our report. It stated that
“more people are food insecure now than before the pandemic … Households with children have been hit hard, with many … still falling through the cracks in support … Existing support schemes have made a difference, but gaps have meant many people still struggle to eat adequately.”
Its recommendations, mirroring those in our report, include that the Government should review free school meal policy across the UK and ensure that
“no disadvantaged children are missing out on the benefits of a Free School Meal … Food insecurity levels are high among those in work and those on benefits”.
There is a need to increase wages, to retain the £20 uplift to universal credit and to remove that five-week wait. There is a need for proper governance structures to be in place to have
“oversight on food insecurity tracking or responsibility to tackle it.”
There has been considerable analysis of the problems with food security and insecurity and the need for people to be able to access nutritious food. There is Mr Dimbleby’s first report—we look forward to his second—our report and the report from the Food Foundation. My fear is that we could become paralysed by analysis. We now need to see the Government working with the Food Foundation, Parliament, local government and education and health authorities to bring forward and implement proposals to ensure greater accessibility to environmentally sustainable food for all at a reasonable cost.
We all need to work together to develop a food system that is resilient to systemic shocks and to safeguard our people. We need a benefits system fit for purpose that will help people climb out of poverty. We need wages to be uplifted so that those in work can afford to purchase good-quality food, and to reduce the reliance on food banks. Can the Minister outline how he, working with colleagues, intends to do just that and to implement the recommendations in our report as a matter of urgency, so that a resilient food system is accessible to all in our society?
My Lords, it is an honour to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick. I also thank and welcome the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sentamu, back to the House, and congratulate him on his maiden speech.
I thank all the members of the Select Committee—I was one of them—the staff, those who gave evidence, and the chair, the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. Their excellent work, if implemented, will save lots of lives, keep us healthy and stop those who harm us through the food we eat, the environment we live in and so on. Daal, as we say in Igbo: thank you.
Most people agree that post Covid-19 will not be business as normal, but a new normal that will take on board what the report is calling for: change. People are hungry for change and they want the failures in food fixed. They do not want any harm done to them through their food.
In the London Borough of Haringey, where I live, children and young people under the age of 20 make up 20.4% of the population. Some 10.8% of children aged four to five and 23.1% of 10 to 11 year-olds in Haringey are classified as obese. Obesity in Haringey costs our NHS more than £81 million a year. Two-fifths of all the children in Haringey were living below the poverty line in the lead-up to the pandemic. Their families lack the income to buy the food they need.
Haringey’s coalition against obesity, made up of local businesses, churches and voluntary organisations, is working with Haringey Council to defeat obesity and save our young people. At the same time, it is working very hard to maintain a viable and vital local economy. Its mission was to stop takeaways targeting school pupils. Put pupils’ health first: stop the scourge of takeaways setting up on the doorsteps of our schools.
The Government could implement the outstanding proposals from the childhood obesity plan without delay. They could introduce mandatory reporting requirements for food businesses on metrics relating to sustainable and healthy diets. They could implement the outstanding proposals from the 2020 obesity strategy.
On fast food outlets, the Government’s response says:
“Councils should support the role that town centres play at the heart of their communities and promote their long-term vitality and viability. They will need to consider the interaction with the location of existing high streets, shopping parades and local shops as rigid exclusion zones could serve to undermine the viability of such long-standing retail uses.”
Where is the evidence? That is the question I ask the Minister.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to welcome the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sentamu, to the Cross Benches. I hope he finds them as supportive as I have. It is also a pleasure to speak in the Chamber once more. It has been a very long year since last I was here, and a similar length of time since this excellent report was first published. The 12-month delay to this debate has only increased its urgency.
My appreciation goes to my noble friend Lord Krebs and the whole committee for producing such an excellent and insightful report in the teeth of the pandemic. The inequalities of which they write have been brutally exposed by Covid-19’s assault on those with poor diet and related ill health. There could not be a more important time to consider its conclusions and to press for the change that our nation is so hungry for.
As many have said, in reply the Government will doubtless repeat their reliance on the national food strategy, which is due to provide its second and concluding report at some point this year. The work of Henry Dimbleby and his team is to be welcomed and applauded, but we must be wary of the Government kicking the can by delegating their responsibility to bodies that will report at some future point. Assuming that the national food strategy reports later this year, the Government have a further six months to respond, so we will not see those details until the summer of 2022. With every month of delay, inequalities and ill health build. This delay will be fatal for many.
I note my interest as a Devon farmer—not quite Neanderthal but with some feudal origins. I am also a member of the advisory board of the South West Food Hub. I will restrict my focus to issues of food production, education and procurement.
As your Lordships are well aware from the Agriculture Act and the Environment Bill, never in recent times has there been more upheaval in policy and funding for land management. The loss of basic area payments and the introduction of ELMS heralds a sea change in how our rural environment is funded, providing public money for public good and moving focus away from the provision of food. Your Lordships will recall many hours debating the 10 ELMS purposes in Section 1(1) of the Agriculture Act, none of which include the provision of food—the basic purpose of agriculture for a millennium. Section 1(4) does require the Secretary of State to
“have regard to the need to encourage the production of food”,
but it is a secondary concern—it is a “regard”. British farmers are now predominantly environmental land managers.
Add to this elements of the Environment Bill, such as local nature recovery strategies and biodiversity net gain, and we have additional incentives pushing farmers away from the production of food towards the provision of ecosystem services. These worthy developments risk fundamentally altering our land use, and I request that the Minister reaffirm the Government’s commitment to the principal role of farming being the provision of locally sourced, sustainable and nutritious food for the benefit of the British people. If that is not the case, we need to know.
At the same time as these major upheavals are impacting farming, the Government are pursuing a trade policy focused on establishing a post-Brexit free trade network at seemingly any expense. The import of lower-cost, lower-standard agricultural products are at the heart of those negotiations. At this very moment we are in an arm wrestle with Australia over its desire for access to British consumers for Aussie red meat, providing an existential competitive challenge to the British pasture farmer.
Although I agree with the report that we need a dietary shift to less and better-quality meat, that shift should not be to meat produced to lower welfare and environmental standards imported at considerable carbon cost. This would not improve the diet of the British public. Indeed, it might make meat even cheaper and thus increase its consumption, moving us yet further from the Eatwell guidelines. Rather than subjecting our high-quality livestock production to an uneven playing field through unbalanced trade capitulations, our Government should be banging the drum for grass-fed British meat and dairy as the highest-quality and most sustainable natural protein available. Will the Minister confirm that British livestock farming will not be sacrificed by the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, on the altar of free trade?
The story of our food and the sustainable natural heritage from which it derives needs to be better told. Professor Dasgupta’s recent report on the economics of biodiversity is adamant that environmental education is key to restoring an understanding of our natural world. The Government have not responded to that recommendation, and I wonder whether the Minister can let us know whether they intend to do so.
I applaud the Government’s efforts to increase public understanding of a healthy diet, and to making health education compulsory for state-funded pupils. If the Government are able to do that for human health, would it not be reasonable to expand the syllabus to include our planetary health, thereby providing all state-funded pupils with the environmental education Professor Dasgupta considered essential? This would enable them to adopt both a healthy and an environmentally sustainable diet.
As the noble Lord, Lord Curry, has noted, public food procurement is the one area in which the Government could have the quickest and most fundamental impact on public health and sustainable food production. I note the Government’s commitment to using public sector procurement to improve the quality of food, as well as supporting local communities, improving nutrition and sustainability.
The South West Food Hub is a community interest company working in partnership with the Crown Commercial Service to deliver a new approach to public sector food procurement, known as the future food framework. The aim is to support small and medium-size producers in the region to sell directly to public sector institutions, ensuring that hospitals, schools, prisons, the armed services et cetera are eating healthy and locally produced food procured at a consistent and affordable price. The scheme both minimises food mileage and maximises the opportunity for those consuming the food to engage with and understand its production. Will the Minister confirm the Government’s support for the work of the South West Food Hub and its ground-breaking pilot with the CCS?
Finally, there has been much talk of obesity and the Government’s obesity strategy. As a member of the National Plan for Sports and Recreation Select Committee, I just add that we will be addressing another aspect of the obesity crisis—as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, well knows—with a view to encouraging greater activity and well-being for those who we hope will be enjoying a healthier and more balanced diet. I congratulate the Liaison Committee for its joined-up thinking in that regard.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sentamu, on his maiden speech.
There is so much to support in this report, and I hope that together the Government, the National Health Service, schools and charities can act together on the recommendations to help ensure that healthy food is available to everyone and that food waste is eradicated. It is also interconnected with food production, with too much focus on unhealthy processed food and food wastage worth £200 billion a year. Even teaching adults and children how to cook a healthy meal and how to reuse left-over food is part of this equation.
It will come as no surprise that food poverty has been at its peak during the coronavirus pandemic, with more people from all walks of life accessing food banks. The work done by the likes of the Felix project, which delivered 29.1 million meals to Londoners in a year since the first UK lockdown, has been so important. A founder of the Felix project, Justin Byam Shaw, said:
“The Covid epidemic has created a dramatic hunger crisis in the UK, not seen perhaps since the 1930s ... In 2020, The Felix Project delivered 8,600 tonnes of good food to 980 local charities and schools—completely for free. As a result, 260,000 Londoners were given food every week and 43,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases were stopped from polluting the planet in the form of wasted food.”
More than 2,000 volunteers gave their time and more than 500 businesses donated their surplus food, ranging from farms to supermarkets and others.
The work of the Felix project is just one of many great examples of charitable work, but it also highlights a fundamental flaw in how much food is being discarded. We need to look at how we can stem this flow and get people and retailers to better manage their food and supplies. It has been found that where councils introduce food waste collections, people have been shocked to see what they throw away and either buy less or use their food more wisely. WRAP does much work in the area, particularly with businesses and manufacturers. We need to work together to make a real difference.
I have spoken before of the need to retain the £20 universal credit payment introduced during the Covid lockdowns. This remains critical to many families to help them feed their children. Research has shown how important proper meals are to school children, helping them to concentrate in lessons. Whether this is free via school meals or through their parents, it is vital that we ensure that children receive proper meals—through their school holidays, too. I ask the Government to look at how this can be achieved.
I am unable to call the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, my fellow Australian-born female Peer in your Lordships’ House. That will become somewhat relevant later. I also welcome the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sentamu, back to your Lordships’ House. The last time we met, I believe we were talking about Yorkshire devolution, so I look forward to having future conversations on such matters.
I join pretty well all noble Lords in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and his committee on a spectacularly weighty report that really deserves the paper it is printed on. That is not something that can always be said. I join him, the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Lister, and many others in expressing strong disappointment at the Government’s response to the report. “Thin” is, I think, the adjective that has been used. I would probably go further and say “derisory”. However, I take one piece of consolation from reading the Government response. It seems to have evaded that incredibly powerful directive being delivered to all Government output. It does not seem to contain the phrase “world-leading”. That is quite telling, because it reflects the fact that even this Government cannot apply the phrase “world-leading” to the UK’s food system—the broken food system that this report so clearly identifies.
We find ourselves in a very curious constitutional position. The Government’s response says that we all have to wait for Mr Dimbleby’s report. I am not quite sure what place Mr Dimbleby has in the British constitution, but it seems to be a very important one, according to that.
However, I hold great hopes for Mr Dimbleby’s work, and I very much look forward to it, but I have a small disagreement with the words from Henry Dimbleby quoted in this report, in which he says of the food system,
“it is almost impossible to act on it … without creating winners and losers.”
The word I question in that sentence is “creating”. What we have is a food system that now has some truly spectacular winners: the supermarkets, the multinational food manufacturers, the fast-food companies, the seed and agrochemical companies. It also has some truly spectacular losers, as many noble Lords have outlined, starting with the children of the UK who are losing out with a dreadful quality of diet. Our public health is losing out very spectacularly—and, of course, our environment. It has often been said that Mr Dimbleby is producing England’s first ever food strategy. I would say that this is not the first food strategy, it is the first written-down food strategy. Our strategy for decades has been to allow multinational companies and supermarkets decide what we eat, and we can see the results in this report.
However, I want always to look forward and be positive. I want to pick out some words from the report by the National Farmers Union. Philip Hambling talks about the traditional “three-legged stool” of sustainability, in that it has economic, environmental and social legs. It is already clear from what many other noble Lords have said that the social leg has not so much been broken off as smashed to smithereens, given the level of food poverty in the UK. In fact, I would say that this is not food poverty; it is simply poverty. This has been covered very well by other noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, compared the situation 100 or so years ago with the disastrous situation we are in now, saying that somehow, we have been through a cycle and ended up in a similar position. I will draw a further parallel. Back then, our food system was starving many millions of people in India, in the Empire. Today, there is more than enough food for everyone to be fed, but nearly 1 billion people regularly go to bed hungry.
I turn to an issue that no one else has yet referred to today. We need to acknowledge—particularly the Minister who is now speaking for the Government—that this should all be seen in the context of COP 26 and our chairing of it. Repairing our food system is surely part of our responsibility in that role.
That brings me back to Australian issues. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, the noble Earl, Lord Devon, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, all referred to the potential for an Australian free trade deal. I refer to paragraph 469 of the report, which states:
“Food imports must be required to adhere to the same environmental and health welfare standards that are in the UK.”
Most other noble Lords have rightly expressed concern about the impact on British farmers of food imports from Australia, particularly meat imports, but I raise the question of the environmental impact of producing those food imports, along with the animal welfare impact. A week or so ago I wrote a piece for the Yorkshire Post reflecting on the fact that not only are my origins Australian, but my first degree was in agricultural science. I worked on Australian farms, and I told some tales from those farms and their animal welfare standards then. I should warn noble Lords not to read them over breakfast. However, I can also tell noble Lords that I was significantly pulling my punches, because there are some things that you simply cannot write in a national or regional newspaper.
Are the Government considering the environmental and animal welfare impacts in terms not only of competition but the state of the world? Is it appropriate to take food from a production system based on the ecocide and genocide of white settler capitalism in Australia that continues to be utterly destructive and profoundly damaging to the environment?
I want to put a couple of more questions to the Minister, given the department he represents, and given that the UK will be chairing COP 26. A former Secretary of State of that department, Michael Gove, was keen on agroecology and agroforestry. Although the report does not use the term “agroecology”, it does refer to farming systems that would fit the agroecological model. As the new Minister, does the noble Lord intend to push agroecological approaches, particularly given the emphasis the report places on the importance of research and development? Is he keen to see far more research and development in the agroecological area?
I stress that I want to be positive, so I thought I would take that three-legged stool idea and construct a new one that the Government might find attractive and be prepared to adopt. I will reframe the report in my final two minutes. I shall refer to “three Ps” that I hope the Government will at least in theory agree to adopting. The first “P” stands for productivity. I hear often from the Benches opposite the desire to improve the productivity of the UK. Can the Minister say whether there has been any consideration of, or reports on, the impact of our poor diet on the UK’s productivity? We hear a lot about the impact on health, and we know that obesity, heart disease, diabetes and all such diseases pose a significant problem for public health. I would posit that they also have a significant impact on the productivity of this country. The Government might like to think about that.
The second “P” is prosperity. The noble Earl, Lord Devon, talked about the South-West Food Hub and how exciting efforts are being made in local food production, bringing huge opportunities to small independent businesses and local traders in order to spread prosperity around the country. That fits very much with the Government’s levelling-up agenda.
The final “P”—I admit I am stretching the “Ps” a little here—is polarity. The levelling-up agenda talks about dealing with regional inequalities in the UK. We have poles of wealth and poles of poverty. If we have strong food systems in every region of the UK—small independent businesses, local greengrocers, markets and cafes all being supplied with local food—what you will have is economic circulation.
These are my suggestions for the three-legged stool, framed in a form that the Government might like. Much of this report could be implemented in that direction, so I hope that the Government will reconsider their response.
I cannot call the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, so I will call the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market.
My Lords, I join with all those who have congratulated the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and his committee and team on producing a report that is remarkably broad and deep. It has been impeccably researched and contains clear recommendations that still stand, despite the time lag since it was written. I also want to congratulate the noble and right reverend Prelate, Lord Sentamu, on his second maiden speech and to wish him a happy birthday. I hope that we can finish our debates early enough for him to enjoy what is left of it.
It does not matter how often you read this report or the evidence that goes along with it: there is always something new to shock and sadden you. That we are still having this debate some three-quarters of a century after Beveridge identified want as one of the “great giants” to be slayed should make us all stop and wonder where our collective system of government has gone wrong.
Much in the personal evidence and testimony is pretty heart-rending, but for those who are of a less emotional disposition than I am, there is also a huge amount of evidence about the cost to the public purse of poor diet in its various forms: an estimated £6 billion to the NHS. Public Health England has predicted that UK-wide costs attributable to obesity alone will reach £9.7 billion by 2050, with wider costs to society being estimated to reach almost £50 billion by then. According to the Sustainable Food Trust, for every £1 spent in shops by UK consumers, another £1 is spent by taxpayers in associated costs. As the report states, continuing with business as usual actually makes no economic sense.
Over the past 15 months we have seen government intervention on a scale we could never have imagined before. Levels of public expenditure and restrictions on our personal liberty have been accepted by the public, by and large, because they can see the need for drastic action at this time of crisis. But as the report demonstrates, failure in the food—[Inaudible]—and has been accelerated by the pandemic. None of the proposals suggested by this report, by noble Lords today or by any of the groups that have given evidence come anywhere near to government intervention on the scale we have seen in the last year, but what they do require is an act of will.
One of the things that comes across clearly in the report, and which has been raised by a number of noble Lords, is that while there is no shortage of data, very little of it is being collected by the Government. They simply do not have any benchmarks or data. The committee received a lot of evidence. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, identified how the Government either do not know about, or are not saying anything about what they regard as, problems in the food system. For example, the food security assessment was last published as a complete document in 2010. It would be helpful to hear from the Minister about this.
There also appears to be a massive disconnect between the Government’s aspirations on one side and their actions on another. A number of noble Lords have raised the point about the standards for a healthy diet and a benefits system that puts such a diet far beyond the reach of recipients. Another example is the childhood obesity plan, which makes recommendations that are very hard for poor families to follow. Five years on, childhood obesity levels are rising—this point was made by the noble Baronesses, Lady Sanderson and Lady Osamor. As my noble friend Lady Janke said, if you are an obese child, you are much more likely to be an obese adult, so this is an ongoing cost.
The Government are putting a lot of store by their levelling-up agenda, which is usually seen in a geographical context, with solutions that are based on investment in physical infrastructure. However, we need levelling up within communities as well because, even within prosperous communities, there are areas of deprivation and individuals in serious need. Where I live, the Suffolk Community Foundation has done some remarkable work in producing a report called Hidden Needs, which describes the poverty that exists even in a relatively prosperous county such as Suffolk. Diet-related ill health is much more likely to affect those in lower-income groups, and it is reasonable to accept that those who are struggling to afford to eat are struggling to afford to eat properly.
As we have heard in today’s debate, and in the report:
“Food insecurity not only damages physical health but also causes social harm bringing profound anxiety and stress to families and can affect children’s school attendance, achievement and attainment.”
I know that the Government will argue that creating jobs in deprived areas would deal with this, but it is worth noting that food poverty is not just an issue for the workless. Pre pandemic, the biggest growth in food bank use was among people who were working in either low-paid or unpredictable zero-hours-type jobs. As we have heard, child poverty has risen from 3.6 million to 4.1 million since 2010, and seven out of 10 of those children live in a family where at least one parent is working.
Others argue that it is possible to retrain and upskill workers out of poverty. I am very much in favour of doing both, but the fact remains that we need workers in jobs that we tend to call “unskilled”. It cannot be right that people who are doing these jobs, many of whom we simply could not do without—the pandemic has really highlighted their value to society—can work full time in those sectors and still rely on food banks to feed their families.
As the report sets out, food insecurity is largely a “consequence of poverty”. The idea that we could somehow trade our way out of it and that buying cheap food would solve the problem simply flies in the face of the facts in this report and others. As the report also sets out, and as we have heard clearly from the noble Lord, Lord Curry, the noble Earl, Lord Devon, and others, this is not just a matter of food insecurity and poverty. There is a fundamental problem with our whole food system. Evidence from the Food Foundation, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and others has shown that the least healthy diets actually produce more carbon emissions than the most healthy ones.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, pointed out, there are still high levels of food waste in the UK. An estimated 10.2 million tonnes of food and drink are wasted virtually at the farm gate. This is worth £20 billion, and to that we can add food waste at every stage, through production, retailers, the food service sector and consumers.
Many noble Lords, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, in particular, have talked about the link with agriculture and the Environment Bill. These are based on principles of, first, public money for public goods and, secondly, the polluter pays. So I would be interested to hear the noble Lord’s thoughts about how those principles can be reflected in our attitude to food.
In 2014, I chaired a committee looking into the subject of food waste; it was the first time that this had ever been done, and the resulting report got attention right across the world. As a result, I was asked to speak at conferences across Europe. Inevitably, the subject of food banks came up in discussions, and it is worth reflecting on the fact that this is not just a UK problem. What struck me was the reluctance of all Governments, everywhere, to admit that some of their citizens are going hungry. No Government seem to want to admit that they are not meeting one of the basic needs of the people whom they are elected to serve—and that is the big problem because, if you do not admit that there is an issue, you will never put it right and the problem will get worse.
The Government always say they are world leading. We have not heard it today, but I have no doubt we shall in weeks to come. They could show genuine leadership in this area by acknowledging that there is a problem of food poverty. They could develop metrics to measure it and then create an action plan to deal with the worst of these problems, so that we are not debating this in 75 years’ time.
There are many immediate measures, outlined in this and in other reports, that could be taken to ameliorate the situation. Scrapping the five-week wait for universal credit, retaining the £20 uplift, reforming the scheme for paying back advances, and having another look at the free school meals system so that it does not rely on a campaign by a young footballer every time we have a school holiday—all these could be done relatively quickly and without primary legislation.
Other changes, such as reforming the food system, will take longer, but the Government could show leadership. The vaccination programme has shown us that when all the different sectors in our society—from government, through to academia, business and the charity sector—pull together, we can achieve a huge amount. This is something we could tackle.
My Lords, I welcome the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sentamu, to his new role and thank him very much for his contribution.
I too want to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and to all noble Lords who worked on this report. As others have said, it stands out as a hugely authoritative piece of work to which we can return again and again for its in-depth analysis and for the quality of its recommendations.
I share the frustration of others that it has taken a year to have this debate—a year in which the Covid crisis has caused terrible death and devastation. But it is a testament to the report that its recommendations are as fresh and relevant as ever, which is why the Government’s response—which seemed complacent at the time—seems even more inadequate now. I hope that, having had time to reflect, the Minister will be able to provide a more optimistic account of the actions that the Government are now prepared to take. I also thank the Food Foundation for its important and continuing work on these issues.
Of course I am aware that the Government’s default position is that these issues are being dealt with in the national food strategy report, due to be published shortly. But this does not mean that all policy needs should be put on hold. Many of the proposals, both in this report and in part 1 of the Dimbleby report, published last year, are urgent. They relate to the aftermath of the Covid crisis and the need to address the health and poverty issues thrown up by the pandemic.
The Hungry for Change report says:
“The crisis has exposed the fragility of many people’s economic situation and exacerbated many of the problems relating to poverty, food insecurity and health inequalities.”
And, as Henry Dimbleby said in the introduction to part 1 of his report:
“These recommendations are urgent, specific and carefully targeted. In this period of acute crisis, they could save many thousands from hunger, illness and even death.”
So can the Minister say what has happened to the more immediate, pressing recommendations in these reports? Is it the case—as the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh suggested—that a response to the first part of Dimbleby has already been sent? If so, I think we should all like to see it. I hope it is not the intention to leave all the issues to be addressed in the White Paper that is promised six months after the second report. Action is needed now.
In particular, I would highlight three issues which will not wait another year. First, as the report points out, food insecurity is
“a consequence of poverty and the economic and social failures that sit behind it”.
Eleven years of government failure have left our country ill-prepared for a job and welfare crisis. A recent report from the Trussell Trust shows that 700,000 households used a food bank last year, with a 49% increase in the number of children supported via that route and 95% of people referred to food banks categorised as very deprived or destitute. Even before the pandemic, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that 2.4 million people were living in destitution, unable to afford the essentials to eat and keep warm. These underlying inequalities have now been thrown into sharp relief by Covid, with debt and destitution rising and the number of children living in poverty increasing by a third. As the report points out, we cannot address poverty and food insecurity separately; they are intrinsically linked.
Clearly, the welfare system is broken. I absolutely agree with the report’s submission that:
“The Government should not be reliant on charitable food aid to plug the holes in the welfare system”—
a point made powerfully also by my noble friend Lady Lister. That is why the recommendations in the report which address the failings of universal credit, particularly the five-week wait—which puts people into debt from which they cannot recover—are so important. It is why it is important to extend the £20 uplift in universal credit, a policy which the Government failed to support in a recent vote. It is also why we need a plan to address that fact that eating well, and embracing the Eatwell Guide, is unrealistic for many low-income groups and financially out of reach for many.
I was therefore very disappointed to see the Government’s response to these proposals, which is best described as “Thank you but, no, we have no plans to address these issues.” It symbolises a hardness and cruelty at the heart of this Government’s thinking which belie all the talk of levelling up, a point made powerfully by my noble friend Lord Rooker. I hope the Minister will be able to reassure the House that the links between poverty and poor diet are now better understood, that detailed monitoring of and collection of data on food insecurity will continue, and that the link between universal credit and food bank use will be properly addressed.
Secondly, the Covid experience illustrated starkly the role that school food plays in supporting childhood healthy eating. The image of children going hungry when the schools were closed, and the heroic efforts of Marcus Rashford to get the Government to continue funding lunchtime food, is a stand-out feature of our experience in the past 12 months. All the evidence shows that good food is essential for learning, and all the talk of levelling up will not work if children are hungry. The free school meals system increasingly excludes children who would previously be eligible. The Dimbleby report recommends expanding eligibility to every child from a household in receipt of universal credit. The existence of holiday hunger continues to blight us. Even now, the Government are proposing to feed children on free school meals for only 16 of the 30 weekdays during the upcoming summer holidays. We need an urgent rethink of the system to ensure that every child has a hot meal once a day, and that breakfast clubs and holiday activities have the funding to fill the void in demand.
Again, the Government’s response on these issues was complacent, at a time when poor children are being left behind in the education system. The resignation of Kevan Collins, the education recovery commissioner, is a damning indictment of their meagre education catch-up plan. I hope that the Minister can reassure the House that steps will be taken to ensure that access to good, nutritious school food for all will be part of a more ambitious and urgent catch-up plan.
Thirdly, as the report points out, Public Health England has made a clear link between obesity and Covid, with a disproportionate number of patients in intensive care categorised as morbidly obese. There is an urgent need to address diet-related ill health and the consequences for the individuals and society. It is vital that we increase public understanding of what constitutes a healthy and sustainable diet. We need to address the difficult but essential challenge of encouraging the nation to eat less meat and more plant-based products.
The report makes some really important recommendations on the labelling, advertising and promotion of food, mandating maximum calories per portion, action to reduce sugar and salt, and the voluntary and regulatory measures needed to underpin these changes. We need to be clear with industry that, if it does not respond swiftly and comprehensively, regulatory action will follow—including fiscal levers and levies where necessary—although, as my noble friend Lord Whitty said, addressing this with multinational manufacturers and retailers is a much more difficult challenge.
I am pleased that the Government acknowledge action needs to be taken in their response, but as ever, their reliance on long consultations and even longer implementation dates does not reflect the urgency of the public health issues we now face. The Government’s obesity strategy published last year is welcome as far as it goes, but that needs to be underpinned by a degree of urgency and with targets and measurements of success to deliver a real shift towards healthy and sustainable diets.
Finally, I am conscious that I have been able to cover only a small part of the more comprehensive report. We look forward to the publication of part 2 of the National Food Strategy and the debate that will follow. I hope the Government will give it the weight and seriousness I am sure it will deserve. I hope as part of their response they will feel able to follow up part of this report’s recommendation to establish
“an independent body, analogous to the Committee on Climate Change”
to deliver the strategic oversight of the implementation of the national food strategy, ensuring the comprehensive change in eating habits and food policy that the nation deserves.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, for initiating this important debate and I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. What was absolutely apparent from the members of his committee who spoke was the respect they have for him and his chairmanship. It was so good to hear so many of the members of his committee contribute to our debate and I am grateful to them for bringing forward such an interesting report—the Hungry for Change report.
I fully admit that I have a difficulty here today, because I will irritate your Lordships if I hide behind the publication of future documents such as the Dimbleby report and the food strategy. However, I would be wrong to pre-empt those reports by prejudging them and saying too much at this stage. I hope your Lordships will humour me if I try and sail a middle course.
As highlighted in the committee’s comprehensive report,
“Food should be a source of enjoyment, good health and cultural expression”.
It is paramount that our food system delivers safe, healthy and affordable food for everyone, regardless of where they live or how much they earn. This Government are committed to ensuring that our food system is built on a sustainable and resilient agriculture sector so that we and future generations can continue to access good, healthy and sustainable food.
I will try to tackle as many of the points that have been raised in the debate as possible. I apologise if I cannot answer everybody, but if I cannot, I will try to write to them. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, raised a very important point. Since the start of the pandemic, government departments have come together to co-ordinate support for the most vulnerable. For example, the food for the vulnerable ministerial task force was set up a year ago to respond to some of the initial challenges of Covid-19 for a limited time with a defined remit. The task force membership spanned departments across government including the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government, the Department for Work and Pensions and Ministers from the devolved Administrations.
The task force was instrumental in putting support for the most vulnerable in place. That included £63 million for the local authority grant scheme, delivered by Defra with support from MHCLG, to enable local authorities to provide further support for individuals struggling to afford food and essential items. There was £10.5 million for the food redistributor FareShare, £1.8 million for the Covid-19 emergency food redistribution scheme, £3.4 million to support individual charities through the food charity grant scheme and much more. Of course, the billions that have been spent on measures such as furlough have supported family incomes and therefore have contributed to tackling food poverty.
The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, raised a straightforward question, and I assure her that Defra is working closely with departments across Whitehall, including the Department for Health and Social Care and Public Health England. Defra has been feeding into discussions around the setting up of the office for health promotion to develop a White Paper when it is established. As part of these discussions, we are setting out a plan to ensure that the food system is sustainable and affordable, and that it supports industry and innovation and encourages healthy diets while protecting animal health and welfare.
The Government’s food strategy White Paper will cover the entire food system from farm to fork, building on work already under way in the agriculture and fisheries Acts, and the Environment Bill, as well as docking into wider government priorities, including build back better, levelling up, our net-zero strategy and our obesity strategy, which I will come on to.
The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, made a powerful speech. I respected him when he was a Minister, but I simply cannot agree with him here. It would be an appalling situation if what he suggested was true, and I absolutely refute it. I would not be part of such a Government. It was an extraordinary allegation to make.
Like everyone in this House, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Sentamu, to his place here, as he returns for his second maiden speech. I wish him a happy birthday. He made a very powerful speech. He said that it is about “us”, not about “me”. The state does have a role. We often talk about big state versus small state, and there are times when many of us leading comfortable lives do not want the state taking all our taxes and interfering with us, but if you are poor and cannot afford to feed your children, you need loads of state, and it is about getting that balance right. He was absolutely right to raise that point.
The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, showed a great understanding, as we would all expect, of the food chain, and gave that very important statistic that 40 times the amount of money spent on advertising is spent on confectionary than is spent on fruit and veg. If noble Lords want to see the direction of travel that the Government are going in, and why they are asked Henry Dimbleby to do this work, they should look at Henry Dimbleby’s TED talk. It is nine minutes long and absolutely brilliant, because it talks about the holistic nature of the problem.
My noble friend Lord Hannan gave us a history lesson. I had the privilege of representing Newbury, a seat that was lost by the Conservative Party in the free trade election of 1906, when there was a bit of negative campaigning by the Liberal candidate—I know that is hard to believe—which suggested that the sitting MP, Mr Mount
“wants you to pay more for bread”,
because he was opposed to free trade. Mr Mount lost his seat, a factor that was well remembered by his great-grandson, David Cameron, and which made him so passionate about free trade. The noble Lord is right however, that we have to do it in the right way, and we must recognise the cost of bringing food from all over the world, not just in terms of what it costs individuals but what it costs our planet. We want to ensure that the Government’s policy about the standard of food that is produced is weighed in the balance as well. My noble friend Lady McIntosh made a very important point about the crisis—I put it like that—between lack of understanding about town and country, a point that was well supported by the noble Lord, Lord Curry. If I was not here and had not accepted this job, I would be at home with 800 schoolchildren visiting my farm today. I have left my wife in charge, so I will pay a price for that later.
The noble Lord, Lord Curry, made a very important point about obesity, as did my noble friend Lady Sanderson, the noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie, Lady Osamor and Lady Scott, and of course the Opposition spokesperson. This year is the 30th anniversary of the first obesity strategy; there have been 14 government obesity strategies, introducing more than 700 policies but, since then, we have worse health outcomes related to diet, worse physical activity and worse mental health. Four out of five death and disability causes are diet-related. This is a social justice issue, a point well made in the Centre for Social Justice report, a brilliant piece of work chaired by my noble friend Lady Jenkin. This looked abroad at where success has achieved results, in places such as Amsterdam, and has fed through to an obesity strategy by implementing our policies and seeing them as part of an exciting, evolving long-term policy plan to improve population health. This can be the time when we break the decades-long cycle of repeated policies of little meaningful change. This is the opportunity we have to really tackle this problem. The Government’s obesity strategy is different from its predecessors and it is one that, with our support, will work.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, made a characteristically powerful speech, but I say to her that in our changes to the farming system, we are now able to encourage all sorts of different farming activities. Next week, there is the Groundswell event, promoting regenerative farming. No longer will farmers be narrowly pathed down a route prescribed by a common agricultural policy that has been disastrous for our ecosystems and our health as well. This is an opportunity to get this right and we are determined to do it.
The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, made a very important point about levelling up within communities. As Rural Affairs Minister, I take this very seriously. The rural poor are very often hidden from our eyes because they live in relatively affluent communities. The noble Baroness was absolutely right to point out that levelling up is not something that is just north-south or geographically important, which is why the Government and the committees, on some of which I sit, are really keen to make the point that we are looking for poverty wherever it exists, to tackle it and to end it. And, yes, we admit there is a problem. There is a problem when any single person is prevented from having a healthy diet out of poverty, and we are determined to tackle it. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, that there is an urgency. The interim report that Henry Dimbleby wrote was responded to by the Secretary of State, but we will respond more fully as his main report is published and we will keep the House informed about that.
Tackling poverty in all its forms is a key priority of this Government. This includes ensuring that everyone has access to food. During the last year, significant support has been given to the economically vulnerable as part of the Government’s Covid-19 response. As I said earlier, this has included increasing the value of Healthy Start vouchers; the national rollout of the holiday activities and food programme; Covid support grants through local authorities; and direct funding to support food aid organisations. Building on the significant support given to the most vulnerable during the pandemic, the Government will continue to monitor food insecurity regularly. As part of the Agriculture Act we have included a new requirement to lay a comprehensive report on UK food security before Parliament by the end of this year and at least once every three years thereafter. The report will cover a range of current issues relevant to food security, including global food availability; supply sources for food; food supply chain resilience; household food security and expenditure on food; and food safety and consumer confidence.
I have already spoken about obesity, but it is one of the greatest long-term health challenges this country faces. Living with obesity reduces life expectancy, increases the chances of serious diseases such as cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Covid-19 has brought this into even sharper focus, as excess weight increases the risk of serious illness and death from the virus.
The Government launched their obesity strategy a year ago, which sets out the actions to empower people to make informed and healthier choices about the food they purchase. It includes introducing calorie labelling on menus in cafes, restaurants and takeaways and restricting the advertising of high-fat, salt and sugar products being shown on television and online before 9 pm. This is not just about childhood obesity; this is about tackling the problem throughout society.
In response to the noble Lord, Lord Krebs: part 1 of Henry Dimbleby’s review of the food system was published in July last year and contained recommendations relating to the Covid-19 pandemic and the time preceding the end of the transition period. Several of these recommendations were aimed at addressing food insecurity, including the expansion of the holiday activities programme, as I have said. Having already taken steps to adopt some of the recommendations from the first report, we look forward to considering recommendations from the second.
Now that we have left the European Union, the Government are working to ensure that our food is produced more sustainably and that our environment is left in a better state than we inherited it. We published the agricultural transition plan in November 2020, which sets out our plans to gradually reduce and stop untargeted direct payments and invest the money freed up to pay farmers to improve the environment, animal health and welfare and reduce emissions. We will also provide significant grants to support farmers to invest in equipment, technology, and infrastructure that will improve their productivity in a sustainable way. I make this point to the noble Earl, Lord Devon: we want to ensure our farmers are supported to grow food in a way that also delivers environmental improvements. We are introducing three environmental land management schemes that reward farmers and land managers for producing public goods—the sustainable farming incentive, local nature recovery and landscape recovery. Together, these schemes are intended to provide a powerful vehicle for achieving the goals of the 25-year environment plan and our commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050, while supporting our rural economy.
A number of your Lordships mentioned food waste. As your Lordships will know, the UK is—I am going to say it—a world-leader in tackling food waste, from educating the public on reducing food waste in our homes to making our supply chains greener. We are consulting this year on introducing regulations that would make the reporting of food waste volumes mandatory for food businesses of a certain size. By ensuring businesses are publicly reporting their food waste, we hope they will act to reduce it. The Environment Bill, which had its Second Reading in this House on Monday, will ensure that we go further to ensure less of our food is wasted. The Bill will ensure that councils operate weekly separate food waste collections to prevent food waste from going to landfill or being incinerated.
On trade, the UK is rightly proud of our food, health and animal welfare standards and environmental protections. As set out in our manifesto, we will stand firm in trade negotiations to ensure any future trade deals live up to the values of farmers and consumers across the UK.
We have said a lot about Henry Dimbleby and his reviews, but it is evident that food has an impact on all areas of our society—our economy, our environment and our health. It was for this reason that in 2019 Michael Gove, in a previous position, commissioned Henry Dimbleby to carry out a comprehensive review of the food system to help ensure it delivers healthy, affordable food, is resilient in the face of shocks and restores and enhances the natural environment. I want to thank Mr Dimbleby, on behalf of my department and others across Whitehall, for his tireless work. He really is an innovative thinker, and I will commend his report when it comes. From conversations I have had with him, it seems it is going to be ground-breaking.
I want to assure noble Lords that this Government are wholeheartedly committed to listening to Mr. Dimbleby’s recommendations set out in both parts of his independent review. These will inform our own food strategy White Paper, which we have committed to publishing within six months of Henry Dimbleby’s final report.
Defra is working with colleagues across Whitehall to ensure that the entirety of the food system is covered within the White Paper. It will build on work already under way in the Agriculture Act, Fisheries Act and Environment Bill, as well as on wider government priorities, including the others that I mentioned earlier.
I should make one final point to the noble Earl, Lord Devon. The question of meat and diet was raised by a number of noble Lords. There is a challenge for the farming community, and for us, to make the distinction between “good meat” and “bad meat”. Good meat is locally produced and grass-based. We have studied Stéphane Le Foll’s “4 per 1000” presentation to the Paris talks. It is a fantastic way in which to lock up carbon and deal with agriculture’s emissions. It is entirely virtuous to eat locally produced, grass-fed meat. Bad meat comes from a long way away, is often grown on feedlots and has a terrible impact on the environment in so many ways. That is a challenge that we have to face. We have to educate people about what the difference is. We can prove that meat is not bad but can be a real force for good in tackling climate change and our food miles.
I want to end by thanking noble Lords for taking part in this debate and for raising some extremely important points that I will take back to Defra and colleagues across Whitehall. I will look at Hansard and write to noble Lords to follow up on questions that I have been unable to answer.
The food system is complex and requires careful work to ensure that the nation has access to a healthy, sustainable and affordable food supply. Such work is no small feat, which is why our food strategy White Paper will see the Government leading pioneering, cross-cutting policies to establish the UK as a global leader, using a holistic, government-wide approach to transforming the food system. It is urgent and we are managing to do this at a time when we are introducing new farming systems, and dealing with Brexit, trade issues and the pandemic. But this issue is a priority for this Government and for my department. I eagerly anticipate the recommendations that will be set out in Henry Dimbleby’s report and discussing the food strategy White Paper with noble Lords in the coming months.
In concluding, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate for their excellent contributions. We have heard many well-thought- out and passionate remarks, and I am sure that the Minister can be in no doubt about the strength of feeling and interest in this topic from across this House.
I particularly thank and congratulate my noble and right reverend friend Lord Sentamu for his thoughtful speech, and wish him happy birthday. I wrote down two comments that he made. The first was to reimagine the kind of country in which you want to live and the second was to come up with practical proposals for radical change. I hope that, when we finally see the food strategy in the White Paper, it embraces those two thoughts.
I also thank the Minister for his reply and, at the same time, as this is my first opportunity, I congratulate him on his appointment as Minister in Defra. I am very much looking forward to working with him in the future. He warned us that he might disappoint slightly by alluding to the national food strategy, rather than giving us the answers here and now. He did indeed postpone the answers to a few questions, but he generally tried to respond to some of the points made. Towards the end, I noticed, he succumbed to the temptation to refer to the national food strategy as “world-leading”, despite the cautionary note sounded by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett.
In closing, I return to the question of governance. Henry Dimbleby’s work will no doubt be excellent. From looking at part 1 and talking to him, from time to time, I know that he is thinking deeply and innovatively about these problems, but there is a danger that, like other very good reports, it all ends up in a filing cabinet. That is why we were so keen to have independent scrutiny of the implementation of Dimbleby, through the White Paper and food strategy. The Government rejected our proposal to set up a new quango. I can see why; it is anathema for Governments to create quangos that then cause trouble. I still believe that would be the best mechanism but, as an olive branch, I offer an alternative for the Minister to take away.
The problem with food is that it does not come top of the agenda in any government department, except one—the Food Standards Agency. This is a non-ministerial department with food as its central priority. In closing, I ask this question for consideration: why not charge the Food Standards Agency with the task of monitoring and reporting on progress in implementing the national food strategy? It would not involve creating a new quango, and would help to ensure that we keep our eyes on the prize of tackling the costly and debilitating blot on our society that is food poverty.
House adjourned at 5.41 pm.