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Food Insecurity: England

Volume 822: debated on Tuesday 7 June 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the causes of food insecurity in England.

My Lords, food prices are driven by many factors, including agricultural and manufacturing costs. We take food insecurity seriously, monitoring household spending on food closely and working with industry to mitigate any friction in the supply chain that may drive up prices. The Government are of course aware that food price increases are playing a part in a wider rise in the cost of living. Recent increases in energy prices, however, which are the predominant pressure on households, mean that people have less money to spend on food, regardless of its price.

I thank the noble Lord for that answer. The recent Food Foundation report on food insecurity was truly alarming. Over seven million adults, over 2.6 million children and nearly half of all families on universal credit have experienced food insecurity in recent months. The Government have the free school meals scheme, the Healthy Start scheme and the holiday activities and food programme to enable a very targeted way of providing a nutritional safety net for the children who are most in need. Can the Government promise to increase funding to these targeted programmes to ensure that the shocking emergence of a generation of poorly fed, poorer children does not become endemic in our country?

I thank the noble Lord for his comments, and he is right: tackling poverty in all forms is a key priority for this and any Government. The Chancellor recently announced a new £15 billion support package to help families with the cost of living, building on measures worth nearly £22 billion that the Government have already announced. That brings the total support for households this year to £37 billion, which will be targeted in any number of ways but is particularly designed to help those who are most vulnerable.

My Lords, given that our food security and self-sufficiency is lowest in fruit and vegetables, what progress has been made on issuing work permits for people to come and pick our fruit and vegetables in the season which is just about upon us?

There has been a lot of talk about self-sufficiency, so I looked into this to see what changes there have been in recent years. We have a high degree of food security in the UK: we are largely self-sufficient in wheat production, growing 88% of all the wheat we need; we are 86% self-sufficient in beef; we are fully self-sufficient in liquid milk—I am making a point that I hope is interesting; we produce more lamb than we consume; and we are close to 100% self-sufficient in poultry. The Ukraine situation has certainly added pressure, but our situation vis-à-vis self-sufficiency has not altered measurably in the last 20 years.

My Lords, two years ago the Government conducted an internal review into drivers of food bank use—everyone in this House would agree that that use has gone up. A commitment was given by Ministers at the DWP to publish this in 2020. In February this year, in the other place, Jacob Rees-Mogg said that a further commitment would be given to publish this review this year. Where is it, and when are we going to see it?

I understand, and the Government accept, the data limitations in monitoring food security. From April 2021, we introduced a set of questions to the Family Resources Survey to measure and track food bank usage specifically. I am told that the first results of these questions are due to be published in March 2023, subject to the usual quality assurance.

My Lords, the public are increasingly concerned about how they will feed themselves and their families. It is not just about reading the supermarket signs saying that sunflower oil has been replaced by a similar or equivalent oil in products; it is about the exponential rise in staple food product prices. A small bag of oranges used to be £1.20 for 10; this has now increased to three fruits for £1. Can the Minister say whether all government departments, including the DWP and the Treasury, are working together to find solutions?

The noble Baroness is right that there has been year-on-year food price inflation, with rises of 6.7% in April, up from 5.9% in March. She mentioned supermarkets, and Defra has been engaging with the supermarkets very regularly to discuss cost of living issues and the steps they can take to help address them. We will continue to explore a wide range of measures they can take to ensure the availability of affordable food, for example by maintaining value ranges, price matching, price-freezing measures and so on. This is a priority for Defra and, as she implies, is a cross-cutting issue on which departments are working together.

My Lords, the Dimbleby National Food Strategy report was published in July 2021, which is nearly a year ago. It sets out recommendations on many of the food insecurity issues that we are raising today. Given its significance, is the Minister embarrassed by the length of time the Government have taken to respond to that report?

My Lords, I first acknowledge the work that went into that report. It was a brilliant piece of work and I am grateful to the team behind it, not least Mr Dimbleby. I hope, as I know the noble Baroness does, that the Government will provide a proper and comprehensive response, as soon as possible.

My Lords, I quote from a government report that came out in July 2021. It reported that the data show that promotions of food in supermarkets

“increase consumer spending by encouraging people to buy more than they intended to buy in the first place.”

In light of that, does the Minister agree that it is time to stop these promotions, as part of the contribution to helping people to manage their food budgets more effectively?

My Lords, I am aware of the study the noble Lord cites, but I do not pretend to be an expert in this area. The Government’s view is that the proposed policy to inhibit, for example, “Buy one, get one free” offers has been postponed to provide immediate relief for those people facing acute food insecurity and poverty. The policy has not been abandoned; it has simply been parked.

Is the noble Lord aware that recruiters are forced to go further and further afield in an effort to find pickers—even to Nepal and the West Indies? Is this a result not only of the war in Ukraine but of Brexit, and therefore could it have been foreseen?

The noble Lord makes an important point. The department that I am representing is working closely with the Home Office to ensure we have the labour we need to pick and collect the food that is produced in this country.

Is my noble friend aware that the families and men and women who go shopping in the UK are well able to make a judgment on their own part and welcome promotions that reduce the price of the produce they want to buy?

My Lords, I am sure the Minister is aware of the crisis in the supply of infant formula in the United States, which is associated with an extremely oligarchic concentration of production and ownership of supplies. What assessment have the Government made of similar risks to supplies of critical products in the UK?

My Lords, the UK has a resilient food supply chain. The preparations we were required to make in the event of a no-deal exit from the EU ensured that the UK made preparations that otherwise perhaps would not have been made. In a very real sense, the possibility of a no-deal exit led to an audit of our supply chains, which has resulted in a much more resilient system than we might otherwise have had.

My Lords, given that farms are reporting that only 25% of seasonal workers have received their visas, would the Minister have another attempt at answering the question from the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, as to why there is a delay in visas for seasonal workers?

I refer the noble Lord to my previous answer. Defra is working very closely with the Home Office to ensure we have the labour we need to collect the food grown in this country.

Further to that, what are the Government doing to increase the number of people from the UK who are potentially available to work? Welfare-to-work schemes to bring people off inactive benefits in circumstances such as these have always been important to reduce poverty in this country. It is of particular importance now that the EU labour market force has been reduced.

The noble Lord makes an important point. There are many job vacancies, not least in the area we are discussing. This is an area of focus for the DWP and, indeed, for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

My Lords, the biggest cause of food insecurity at the family level is poverty. Some 22 million adults in the United Kingdom survive on an annual income of less than £12,570. Will the Minister commit to give an immediate increase of 15% to universal credit and the state pension? If not, can he commit to live on £12,570 for a year?

The noble Lord knows that I cannot commit to any such thing, but I reiterate that the Chancellor has pulled together a package amounting to £37 billion specifically to tackle the immediate crisis in the cost of living faced by people in this country. That money will go a very long way to alleviating the suffering of those people at the bottom of the economic ladder in this country.