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Cost of Food

Volume 724: debated on Wednesday 14 December 2022

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the cost of food.

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray. I would like to start this debate on the cost of food by speaking about the situation today in my constituency of Liverpool, West Derby. Food prices have increased by 16.4% in the year to October, and one in three people in my great city are in food poverty. One in six constituents in West Derby are missing meals or going without food, and two in three are cutting back on hot water, heating or electricity. The situation is getting worse by the hour.

I am here today to deliver a message to the Minister, the Government and this House: the rising cost of food, coupled with falling wages and a completely inadequate system of welfare support, is a catastrophe for my constituents and my community, and its long-term effects will be catastrophic for generations to come in Liverpool, West Derby.

Like many Members present, I have been contacted by constituents who have never been so scared about their future and their situation. We have workers in almost every industry taking strike action as a last resort, because work does not pay and does not meet rising costs, such as those for food. In West Derby, there are nurses, educators, firefighters, postal workers, rail staff and civil servants using food banks. What have we become?

This is one of the gravest and most frightening crises seen in our lifetimes, and my constituents tell me they feel abandoned and ignored by the Government, whose job it is to protect them—a Government who commissioned the national food strategy and ignored it when it reported back. For all the report’s shortcomings, its author, Henry Dimbleby, attempted to answer some of the failings in Government policy and proposed changes that would have immediately lifted many people out of food poverty if they had been implemented.

Food insecurity levels have doubled since the start of 2022, affecting an estimated 10 million adults and 4 million children in September alone. If the Government cannot ensure that everyone has enough to eat and cannot guarantee their right to food, they are a Government who are fundamentally broken. The 16.4% rise in the price of food in the past year is the highest since 1977, and we have seen the sharpest fall in wages since that year. These catastrophic statistics have a devastating impact on our communities, which I am sure we will all speak about today.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. A recent survey by the trade association for school caterers found that food ingredient prices for schools have gone up by 20% in just two months. Schools are having to subsidise free school meals from their own budgets or to charge struggling families more, for those who are entitled to free school meals. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should not only extend free school meals to every child on universal credit, but fund schools properly to provide free school meals?

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. I would go further and call for universal free school meals for every child, but I will speak about that later.

Calorie for calorie, healthier foods are now nearly three times more expensive than less healthy foods. Terrifyingly, the cost of baby formula has soared over the last year, with the cheapest brands increasing by 22%. We have seen pictures of baby milk locked away and put on the highest shelves in supermarkets—images that surely epitomise this entirely broken system.

Inflation hits the poorest hardest. The poorest fifth of the population would need to spend 43% of their disposable income on food to afford the Government’s recommended healthy diet in “The Eatwell Guide”. How is that achievable with so many pressures and so little income?

The hon. Gentleman is making a number of excellent points. Tomorrow, Good Food Scotland will open the Linthouse Larder. Does he agree that what we want to hear from the Government is how they are going to assist organisations that provide affordable food at affordable prices for so many of his constituents and my constituents, so that they can survive from week to week?

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, and I fully agree with everything he said.

I want to highlight the appalling impact that the cost of food is having on children in particular. Professor Ian Sinha, a paediatrician at the fantastic Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in my constituency, told me:

“We see the almost Dickensian effects of poor nutrition in children in Liverpool and other working class cities. We see rickets, poor growth, and deficiencies in minerals and vitamins that reflect that their nutrition revolves around getting enough calories to survive...not around developing optimal health…We have seen malnutritioned children so anaemic as a result of poor nutrition, and so acutely sick, that we thought they had leukaemia. We see children sharing food portions, in schools and in houses, and so no wonder they are falling asleep and struggling to concentrate in class. Paediatrics is about ensuring children live their best life—as per the UN Convention on the rights of the child—and their lack of food is shackling them and their opportunities.”

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the outstanding work he is doing on the Right to Food campaign. Does he agree that the Welsh Government are leading the way on food, particularly for children? We have already introduced free school meals in primary schools, and hopefully that will be extended to secondary schools at some point, despite the fact that Wales does not get a fair, needs-based funding formula. Wales really does care and is compassionate about the needs of people and future generations. Does my hon. Friend agree that the UK Government need to take the lead from Wales?

I fully agree, and I commend Mark Drakeford and the Government in Wales for absolutely leading the way on this issue and showing that a different way is possible.

Professor Sinha goes on to say:

“When I tell families in my asthma clinic that nutrition is crucial, they tell me that by the time they can get to the foodbank any fresh fruit and vegetables have gone. When we explain the importance of how food is prepared, they tell us that the only mechanism of heating food is a kettle. They are limited to ultra-processed, calorie dense foods that are cheap and easy to store. When we see analyses such as those in the British Medical Journal last month, showing associations between ultra-processed food and the risk of death, we know that the children coming to our clinics are often on this path, but they can’t afford to get out of it.”

It is a disgrace that my constituents face this appalling and grave situation, and yet at the same time we read reports that global food companies have paid out £15 billion in profits to their shareholders. Supermarkets are not doing too badly either: they have also paid out vast dividends during covid and the cost of living crisis.

At a recent Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee session, we heard evidence from the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, who told us:

“Corporations have a significant amount of power in markets and there is not much being done to hold corporations accountable. Food prices are at the mercy of speculation…Governments have tools in place to stabilise prices.”

At the same time, research from the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union highlighted that the workers who produce the food and enable those profits are some of the hardest hit by the rising cost of food.

Hunger and out-of-control food inflation are not inevitable. They are a political choice made by this Government and compounded by cutting away vital protections from rising fuel costs, dismantling the social safety net, cutting universal credit, imposing benefit sanctions, eroding workers’ rights and presiding over a decade of austerity that has cut to the bone our vital services, which are needed now more than ever. The time for sticking plasters to address the rising cost of food—such as the reliance on thousands of food bank and food pantry volunteers and donors—is over. We need systemic change so that all our people have the opportunity of health, happiness and dignity.

That is why we need to legislate for the right to food. We need enforceable food rights to ensure that the Government of the day are accountable for addressing the cost of food and making sure nobody goes hungry, and that they are prevented from making decisions that lead to people being unable to afford to put a meal on the table. A right to food should be not a safety net but a rope ladder, with ever-higher standards of provision.

I propose the following as an extremely modest and deliverable beginning. There should be a duty on the Secretary of State to ensure the food security of our nations, which should be taken into account when setting competition, planning, transport, local government and all other policies. We should be eradicating food deserts, not enabling them. Ministers should be under a duty when setting the minimum wage and any relevant social security benefits, including pensions, to state how much of the prescribed sum has been calculated for food, because right now it is nowhere near enough.

Finally, we must legislate for universal free school meals—a nutritious free school breakfast and lunch for every child in state education. We heard powerful evidence at the EFRA Committee recently about the benefits that that would bring for children’s learning, happiness and health and about how that investment would allow our children to enjoy futures that are far brighter than what they are looking forward to now. Crucially, from the Government’s perspective, it would pay for itself in the long run. The benefits far outweigh the costs.

I urge the Minister to come forward with action now and not to repeat the indifference they have shown when I have raised this issue repeatedly in the House. Constituents are starving, and we need political leadership that guarantees and realises everyone’s right to healthy food. If reliance on charity alone was a sufficient guarantee for basic human needs in the UK, previous generations would not have legislated for universal state schooling or a national health service. This horrific situation demonstrates that we need the same vision and ambition when it comes to food security—and it cannot wait a moment longer.

Colleagues will recognise that we have around half an hour until the winding-up speeches at 5.23 pm. Eleven people are trying to catch my eye, and that works out at around two and a half minutes apiece. I shall not set a formal time limit, but if Members could be courteous to each other by keeping to two and a half minutes or less, that would be most appreciated.

It is an honour to speak under your chairship, Mr Gray. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) for securing the debate.

One in six Jarrow constituents have gone without food in recent months, and two in five have cut back on food spending. Food prices increased by 16.4% in the 12 months to October 2022, and the cost of wholesale food is having a huge impact on charities and food banks. At my surgery last week at Hebburn Helps, it reported that wholesale food prices are severely impacting its ability to help those in need. Food insecurity rates have doubled since the start of 2022, with an estimated 10 million adults and 4 million children impacted. Reductions in food quality and quantity are having serious health consequences for children, the elderly and the vulnerable.

We are hearing reports that food prices are so high and wages so low that firefighters, nurses, teachers and many others are now reliant on food banks. Yesterday in Parliament, the National Education Union told us that support staff are using food banks set up in their schools. Teaching assistants are still trying to feed students from their own pocket, while they themselves are being forced to use food banks to put food on the table in their cold homes. One million children living in poverty do not even get a free school meal. No child should go hungry; no child should be left behind. The nationwide figure that 28% of children live in poverty is appalling. In my constituency of Jarrow, that rises to 39%. That is a horrifying statistic, but we must not forget that behind all these stats is the face of a hungry child and a family who are struggling. When we visualise an average primary school class of 36 children, we should recognise that 14 of them will be living in poverty, too hungry to concentrate at school.

Poverty is clearly a political choice—one that this Government keep on making. This Government should be ashamed that poverty pay and the cost of living crisis have led to millions living in in-work poverty. Throughout the pandemic, supermarket profits soared and they continue to do so. Tesco’s pre-tax profits jumped from £1.1 billion to £2.2 billion in the 12 months to 26 February this year, and the company recently announced a 20% increase in its interim dividend to its shareholders. There are increases in company profits and shareholder pay, yet people are being asked to pay more. We need an urgent change of direction in this country. We need a right to food. In the sixth richest country in the world, it is not too much to ask that our kids do not go hungry.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Gray. I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) for bringing forward this debate and I pay tribute to the tremendous work he has been doing to tackle hunger. Alongside fans of his beloved Liverpool, as well as Everton fans, his Right to Food campaign has helped tackle the food insecurity faced by 11 million people across the United Kingdom.

The Scottish Government allocated almost £3 billion this financial year to help households facing the Tory-induced cost of living crisis, including £1 billion to providing services and financial support not available anywhere else in the United Kingdom. That included increasing the Scottish child payment by 150% in fewer than eight months, to £25 per child per week for those aged between 6 and 15. However, most of the key policies and fiscal levers are held here by this UK Government, given that over 85% of welfare policy is reserved. We continue to press the UK Government, who have all the levers at their disposal, to tackle this emergency on the scale required, including enabling access to borrowing, providing an uprate in benefits and offering extra support to households.

Unlike the Tories, the Scottish Government rightly see food as a basic human right. Everyone should be able to afford the food they need to sustain a healthy life. The Tories have not only taken a wrecking ball to our economy but are decimating the chances for working people, who are often working multiple jobs, to put food on the table for themselves and their families.

The charity Action for Children has unearthed heartbreaking stories of the current cost of living crisis, including the fact that 25% of young people are donating their own pocket money to help their parents through the festive period. Other parents are having to rely on their children’s leftovers, and many families are simply going without. How shameful is that? In my own constituency, I hear personal stories of vulnerable people not leaving their beds because of the price of energy and the current Arctic snap. A constituent contacted me yesterday in a cry for help after spending the last four days in temperatures of minus 8° without any money to heat her home or heat up the homemade soup she had received from a neighbour.

This is a crisis—a food crisis— and one that has been exacerbated under the Tories. Food bank usage has soared over the last 12 years, and yet they turn up gleefully, scissors in hand, to cut the ribbons and open new food banks—or should I say pantries, as the Leader of the House has been referring to them lately? This is terrible stuff. The Trussell Trust revealed that 1.3 million emergency food parcels were provided to people by food banks between April and September this year, and almost half a million of those went to children. Is this truly the society we now consider acceptable?

It is important in these debates that we try to get to the roots of what the cause of this food crisis is. We will be told that it is largely to do with the crisis in Ukraine. I believe that it is actually to do with supermarkets profiteering and world global speculation on the food markets.

With regards to supermarkets profiteering, as my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) said, Tesco has doubled its profits, while those of Associated British Foods have increased by 48% and those of Lidl by 319%. Now is the time for an excess profits tax to ensure that we prevent food speculation at the national level.

In addition, there is speculation at the global level. As I have said time and again on the Floor of the House, we saw this during the banking crash, when billions were moved from the sub-prime housing market into the food commodity market, creating a famine. As a result, we introduced regulation, MiFID II, which put position limits on how much of an individual food commodity could be held by speculators. However, the Government have now introduced the Financial Services and Markets Bill, and in Edinburgh last week the Chancellor announced further deregulation of the market system, meaning that that regulation will be lifted. Instead of regulation by Government or the Financial Conduct Authority, food commodity limits will be handed over to the traders themselves—the very people who are making profits out of this speculation.

Let us put in context the argument that somehow Ukraine has caused this crisis. Ukraine produces 3% of the world’s wheat and 2.6% of the world’s corn—the basic food stuffs. This is about speculation and profiteering. It is not just me saying this about deregulation. The Governor of the Bank of England today stated his anxieties about the Government going too far on deregulation overall, and not learning the lessons of the banking crash. People will starve as a result of profiteering and speculation. That is why we need an excess profits tax and regulation of the food commodity market along with our partners globally.

Finally, I know people do not want to talk about Brexit, but if we look at the London School of Economics analysis, we see that £6 billion has been put on our food bills over the last two years—that is 3% a year. We have got to sort out a new deal on Brexit.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) for his fantastic contribution and his hard work on this issue. I agree with everything he said.

Earlier this year, Salford’s Labour council declared Salford a Right to Food city. When my council made that commitment, along with ramping up support through its Spirit of Salford network, we were facing acute levels of food insecurity across the city. Sadly, since then the number of people in need has risen exponentially. Indeed, tomorrow I hope to visit an event called Five Days of Christmas, where a group called For the Love of Food, led by the brilliant Councillor Sammie Bellamy, will be distributing hot meals to anyone over 65 who might need one. Sammie and her team have been helping those who are struggling to afford hot cooked meals for months now, and they are joined by a stream of other charities across the city providing urgent food support. They include the Salford Families in need Meals Project, Salford Foodbank, Swinton food bank, Mustard Tree, More4Less, Salford Community Grocery, the Food Collective, Audacious A-Teams, Family FoodFayre, Lucie’s Pantry, Salford Loaves and Fishes, Salford Food Parcels, FoodCycle, Oasis Hub and so many more. The list is becoming endless.

The work these brilliant organisations do is nothing short of heroic, but we must question why, in one of the richest economies in the world, the people of my city are having to rely on charity to feed their families. The answer is that more than a decade on from the financial crisis, UK workers are still earning on average £75 a month less in real terms than they were in 2008, and it is getting worse. Nurses’ pay, for example, has fallen by 20% in real terms, and workers in the UK are facing the worst real wage squeeze of all G7 nations. At the same time, the cost of food has soared by at least 11.6% over the last year, which is the sharpest increase on record, not to mention energy costs, which have skyrocketed.

We are at a point when even those in work, even those thought to be in good work, cannot afford the basics they need to survive. All this is why so many workers are now choosing to take strike action. They are choosing to go without pay this Christmas in order to ring the alarm. They simply cannot survive any more.

I agree with the comments by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on the imposition of price caps on essential goods and items in supermarkets to assist with addressing this crisis. I also agree with his suggestion of an excess profits tax for supermarkets. We need to listen to trade unions, which are calling for the national minimum wage to be increased to at least £15 an hour, with an end to exploitative youth rates, and we should be looking at scrapping the widespread use of zero-hours contracts.

The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union has made a very important suggestion. It is calling on the Government to convene a national food emergency summit as soon as possible to bring together all regional and national leaders to put forward a plan to ensure the people of this nation have their basic needs met. I call on the Minister to address that point when he sums up.

Finally, I want to touch briefly on the global situation. There are calls for the Government to regulate and recognise the casino economy and commodity prices. I want to reiterate my right hon. Friend’s comments, because what he raises is so important to addressing this crisis.

We should call this what it is. This is about hunger, poverty and desperation. It is about kids going to bed hungry, waking up and not getting enough food to be able to study at school. This is Britain, one of the richest countries on the entire planet. In this debate, there is not a single Tory MP present who does not have to be here—[Interruption.] Forgive me, there is one.

This is a political choice we have here. It is a political choice to keep wages down. It is a political choice not to match inflation. And It is a political choice to attack the people who are ringing the alarm bells. Tomorrow we will have the first nationwide nurses’ strike. In Plymouth we are seeing nurses using food banks. We are seeing teachers using food banks. We are seeing armed forces personnel using food banks and emergency food vouchers. These are people in good jobs—jobs they have had to study and learn skills for, and jobs that should provide a decent wage so that they can put food on their table for them and their kids. Yet they cannot. This is a reboot of Dickensian Britain. It is sickening. It is utterly sickening.

I launched a campaign with our utterly brilliant food bank in Plymouth a month ago to buy electric blankets. An electric blanket or throw costs 20p a day and people can put their families underneath them to keep them warm, rather than spend £6 a day to heat their home using central heating. We have raised £3,500 to buy electric blankets. The people coming in to collect their food parcels need food that they do not have to heat, because they cannot afford the utilities. It is sickening that this is happening in one of the richest countries.

Brilliant charities such as Provide Devon, a relatively new charity, have seen their fresh food costs go up by a third. They have seen demand go up by a third. They have served an amazing number of people, especially children, but they are seeing their food and their monetary donations fall at the same time, because people are struggling to make ends meet.

I think that when we look at the price of food, it is right for us to also look at the speculators and the supermarkets. I want to give a shout out to our farmers, because it is not the primary producers in this country who are profiteering from high food prices. Many of them are locked into contracts whereby they cannot get a decent price for the food that they grow. It is time that this changed.

Let me first thank you, Mr Gray, and thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) for this very important debate.

I will pick up where my friend the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) left off and say that no policy of trying to tackle food poverty in this country will get anywhere if it does not look at how we produce our food and the amount that we produce, so let us talk about our farmers and the difference that they can make. We have a 14% rise in food prices—it amounts to much more for the poorest people. I agree with everything that hon. Members have said in the last few minutes about the heartbreaking reality of children not having enough food to be able to study and to maintain their health. It is utterly outrageous that in the fifth richest country in the world, we are in this situation.

However, the United Kingdom produces only 60% of the food that it eats. It is a decision of the Government to allow that to be the case, or rather it is the absence of decisions that would have solved that problem. The Government are moving towards the new farm payments scheme. Many or all of us probably support the principles underlying that scheme, which is about public money for public goods. But this month, farmers will see a 20% cut in their basic payment, and that is without most of them having access to anything new to replace it. We see new incentives in order to give landlords financial support for turfing out their tenants and so reducing the amount of food that we produce. This Government now have a farming policy that actively encourages the reduction of food production in this country. That does two things: it pushes up the price of food, and it pushes Britain on to the international commodity markets to buy food elsewhere, pushing up the price of food for the poorest people in the world. That this Government have a farming policy that actively encourages us to produce less food in this country and to push up the price of food for the poorest people in the world is morally reprehensible. I can tell the House, representing, as I do, Cumbria, the lakes and the dales, that Britain’s farmers are determined to feed Britain’s people and to tackle the food poverty that exists in every community. On their behalf, I beg the Government to change tack and allow them to do so.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) on his work on the right to food. He certainly stands in the traditions of the greatest MPs from the great city of Liverpool, second only to Leeds of course—[Interruption].

Controversy apart, in this, the fifth richest country on earth, not a single person—adult or child—should need to be fed by a charity. I congratulate all those wonderful people who donate to charities, whether it be money or food, and who work in food banks. In this, one of the richest countries on earth, that simply should not be necessary. It is a political choice, as my hon. Friend and others have said, and the campaign for the right to food is so important. We need immediate action. I think that, in this historic cost of living crisis, we need price caps on food and other essential items. The state should intervene for the benefit of everyone in our society, particularly the most vulnerable. I believe that we need a tax on supermarket super-profits, to create a fund to tackle hunger. And we should certainly back the campaign by the National Education Union and others for free school meals and support for families over the school holidays.

What should a right to food mean? Every single person in this country should have a right to a decent home, a right to good-quality and healthy food, and a right to free healthcare and education. The right to food should include free school meals for every single child in compulsory education. Let us have a universalist approach and end the stigma of means-testing. There should be a framework of legal duties on national and local government to provide community kitchens. As we have heard, the Secretary of State should be required to consider the cost of food when calculating the minimum wage and benefits.

This is an emergency—a food emergency, a nutrition emergency and a health emergency. Food insecurity levels have doubled since the start of 2022, affecting an estimated 10 million adults and 4 million children in September 2022. Everyone should have the right to food. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby, for securing the debate, and every Member of Parliament, across the parties, who has committed to supporting the right to food.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) on securing this debate. As other Members have said, we have to look at price controls. The price of vegetable oil has risen by 65%, pasta by 60% and tea by 46%.

As other Members have done, including the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), I want to pay tribute to organisations in my constituency, such as the Scottish Pantry Network and the Children’s Holiday Food Programme, funded by Glasgow City Council. This is a cross-party issue, too—the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker) is chair of the Country Food Trust, and his organisation donated 400 food pouches to a number of my local charities only last month. There are many other good organisations out there, including Shettleston Community Growing Project and Cranhill Development Trust, of which I am a director, which are doing some really good work in teaching people not just how to grow food, but how to cook it as well.

In the course of the debate on the cost of food, we have to have a conversation not just about the food available, but about the quality of that food. Quite often, food banks have a plethora of tinned foods, but fruit and veg are not as freely available. The idea that in these islands there are fields where, as a result of a lack of labour, fruit and veg are rotting, should shame a vast number of us, and I attribute much of that to Brexit.

Feeding people should not be something that charities have to do. The comedian Henning Wehn is quoted as saying, “We don’t do charity in Germany. We pay taxes. Charity is a failure of Governments.” That is the fundamental problem. As a result of Government policies, such as the sanctions policy, the five-week wait for universal credit and many other Government-driven issues, we are in a situation where charities in my constituency are having to step in and feed people. That is not a sustainable situation.

We talk about food sustainability. The ultimate issue about sustainability is how the Government behave and their lack of support for the poorest in our society. That is a message that the Minister needs to take back to his colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions.

This Christmas, millions of children will go hungry in the sixth richest nation in the world, completely unnecessarily. It is said that this is about Ukraine, but in 2010, 26,000 people were using food banks, and by last year, that figure was 2.6 million—a hundredfold increase, Now, one in four people are in food poverty, having faced a decade of frozen wages; they are now feeling the cold wind of 17% food inflation.

The response of the Government and the Chancellor is, “Oh, it’ll be all right. We will increase universal credit by 10% and pensions next April.” Food inflation is at 17% now, and it is freezing cold out there. We have just granted 490,000 warrants for energy companies forcibly to convert people’s electricity to prepayment meters, so they will not be able to cook and will be freezing cold. The starvation that we are going to see this winter is much worse than we saw in the aftermath of world war two, when we had rations. It is shameful. It is disgraceful. It is unnecessary, and it must be changed.

Not only should we provide benefits and support for those in greatest need, but there are other obvious things that we can do. As I mentioned, in Wales, there are free universal school meals, both at breakfast and now rolling out for lunch. We could do that immediately.

We need to think about the quality of food. The cheapest calories are the worst calories for diabetes and obesity, and that stores up a time bomb for the future, not just in life chances but in life expectancy. That is unnecessary and stupid, and it is not what we should be doing in a healthy, prosperous, growing economy for all.

In the NHS, 7 million people are already on the waiting list and the nurses are on strike because they cannot afford to feed their own children. We should ensure that the pressures on the NHS are alleviated by feeding all people—children, obviously, and all families and people—so that they are prosperous for the future. Clearly, we need a situation where we stop profiteering; we are seeing the doubling of margins by retailers. We must stop the speculation, ensure a supply of healthy food and ensure fairness and a right to food for the future of Britain.

I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) for setting the scene. He is always here to speak on issues that every one of us supports, and I commend him for bringing this forward.

Between the rise in the cost of living, increasing inflation, rates for basic household goods and the impact of the Northern Ireland protocol on goods coming into Northern Ireland, my own constituents are facing higher prices daily. Why is that? It is because—as the Minister will know, and as I will reiterate for the record—Northern Ireland faces increasing haulage fees. There has been an increase of some 30% in haulage fees this year, in the past six to nine months. It is important that people are aware of this, when other parties state that the Northern Ireland protocol is good for our local economy; here is a figure that proves it is not—not when local businesses are faced with having to put up their prices for the consumer because they cannot afford to make ends meet.

As of 9 December 2022, the inflation rate for food in Northern Ireland was about 10.6%. For a large or small family with kids or elderly pensioners, that is extortionate. My office has seen an incredible rise in the number of people asking for help from food banks. Up until about two months ago, we made between 25 and 30 referrals; we are now making 50, 60 and 65-plus. The people who are coming in are not just the food-poor; they are middle-class people who are now finding it difficult to deal with this as well.

As Members will know, I was in the picket line on Monday past with NHS workers, and the nurses and care staff over there were telling me that they are visiting food banks. That is a fact; that is where we are. I also worry about the lone pensioner who, when it comes to getting their energy payment, has the added stress and pressure of shopping; they worry about whether it is a sustainable price and whether it will last.

I appreciate that times are hard, but we often cannot help the circumstances that occur internationally that cause them. I believe we have a responsibility to ensure that our constituents are supported wherever we can do that little bit extra to help, and that goes for our farmers as well.

Thank you, Mr Gray. Food poverty is a political choice. It is slow violence; we are talking about social murder. The sheer numbers of people who are suffering hardship in this country is staggering. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that over 20 million people in the UK have been forced to cut back their spending on food and essentials because of the spiralling cost of living. Despite the energy crisis, the No. 1 reason that they reported for having to cut their spending was the rocketing price of food itself. One in six households in the UK are food-insecure. In Leicester East, where more than four in 10 children live in poverty and food bank use has soared by more than 300% in recent years, people are facing the worst of this crisis. Food-bank use is again at record levels, and the numbers are rocketing up. These are horrifying figures; a country with so many people in these situations cannot claim to be truly civilised.

I will end on this, because I want to tell this story. It seems that the most popular—

Thank you, Mr Gray. The premise of this debate, and all debates about food, is that everyone should have access to the food that they need. That ought not to be a controversial thing to say. The ONS today reported that food prices continue to rise, with annual food inflation hitting 16.5%—the highest rate for 45 years—and staple items such as tea, pasta and bread rising sharply. Alongside that, the UK is set to suffer the sharpest decline in economic growth of any European nation, with a drop in growth of 1.4% in 2023. That compares unfavourably with a small independent country similar to Scotland such as Ireland, which will see its economy grow by about 3%.

The Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee told MPs that Brexit added 6% to UK food prices—or £210, as the London School of Economics study indicated, which has caused real harm—and a real-terms cut of 2.6% to wages across the UK. I know that that is uncomfortable for the Brexit enthusiasts in the Labour party, but there it is. Add to that the inflationary pressure created by the exchange rate going down due to Brexit, mix it through with the consequential increase in interest rates—despite a recession, as explained by the former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney—and add it all together with the complication of the disastrous mini-Budget, which we are now supposed to pretend did not even happen, and which blew a £30 billion hole in the UK’s finances, and here we are.

My constituents in North Ayrshire and Arran and households across the UK are struggling to pay for essentials. Wages are eroded in the face of soaring inflation, with even buying food a challenge, not to mention heating the home. Where does this leave us? Food banks in Scotland experienced their busiest six months on record from April to September, providing 116,000 emergency food parcels during that period, with 40,000 parcels for children—a 29% increase on the previous year. That is the most parcels ever distributed for children in Scotland by food banks in the Trussell Trust network.

Alongside that, we have the issue of food security itself. We know that Ukraine has had an impact on food production, as have the soaring costs of fertiliser and energy. However, we need to take action now to better understand the full impact of challenges and disruption to our food supply chain and how industry and Government could work together to manage and mitigate the resulting impacts on the cost of food products.

The Scottish Government have established the food security and supply taskforce jointly with industry experts—the first of its kind in the UK. I hope that the UK Government will follow the Scottish Government’s example and the Good Food Scotland strategy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar) has told us, the Scottish Government are doing all they can with the very limited powers they have. They have allocated almost £3 billion this financial year to help households face the cost of living increases, including £1 billion to provide services and financial support not found anywhere else in the UK. That support includes the Scottish child payment, which has increased by 150% in less than eight months to £25 per eligible child per week for those aged between six and 15 years old, as well as free school meals for all primary 1 to 5 children, which will be rolled out for all primary pupils soon.

Let us not kid ourselves. The real way to tackle inequality is to have control over the full range of tax and welfare powers. Anything the Scottish Government try to do to tackle inequality is done with one hand tied behind their back, with 85% of welfare powers reserved to Westminster. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) pointed out how wealthy the UK is, but it is also the most unequal country in Europe. The UK Government must wake up and come to terms with the shocking reality that work is no longer a route out of poverty. Indeed, the Institute for Public Policy Research found that the chances of being pulled into poverty have doubled for households where two people work. That is a disgrace.

Doing nothing is not an option. For those who are really struggling, what is already being done is simply not enough; really, what we need to hear is what more will be done. I sincerely hope that the Minister will respond to the debate in that spirit. I hope that he responds from the starting point that everyone should have access to the food they need and that whatever he plans to say about what is already being done to support people needs to be built on, because it is not enough.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) on securing this timely debate. He is a hugely passionate and determined campaigner on this issue who speaks up for people across the country who are left hungry as prices soar. It is striking that, with one honourable exception—the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter)—the Government Benches are empty, while the Opposition Benches are overflowing with Members who have spoken passionately in this debate. I have been impressed by the contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne), my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), and my hon. Friends the Members for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) and for Swansea West (Geraint Davies). I am not going to repeat the points they made because time is short.

I will go straight to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, who observed the effect of food prices on primary producers. We have seen with rising egg prices that the issue has been well rehearsed but not resolved. Consumers pay more but producers do not cover their costs, so they stop producing, leading retailers to turn to lower standard imports. The excellent and widely reported research by Sustain last week shows just how fine the margins are for many producers, and how, when they are locked into fixed-term contracts, they are blown away by sudden and dramatic rises in costs.

For probably the third or fourth time in these debates, I ask the Minister for an update on the dairy code, the pork code and the fate of the Grocery Code Adjudicator. I do not expect any answers. I could not help smiling at the comments by Minette Batters of the National Farmers Union at the weekend, when she told The Times that the Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), was “asleep at the wheel”. I thought that was a bit unfair; the Secretary of State does not even think she should be at the wheel. As my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West will recall, she made clear it to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee last week that she does not think it is the role of the Government to hand out free food or make price interventions.

That prompts this question: if it is not for the Government to intervene when people go hungry, then whose role is it? Ministers may be surprised to find that many people in this country do think that the Government have a role—just not this Government. My big question for the Minister is: what does he think his role is as the Food Minister? What is he for? It is almost exactly a year on from the Government sneaking out the food security review under the Agriculture Act 2020. Can he tell us what the situation is today? Farmers tell me that we are less food secure than we were a year ago. Growers are not planting, the sow herd is smaller and poultry farmers are not restocking. Are the Government concerned? Do they have a view? Can he even tell us whether we are more or less secure than we were a year ago?

I am grateful to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds for pointing out in its briefing for this debate that the Government said the biggest medium to long-term risk to the UK’s domestic production

“comes from climate change and other environmental pressures like soil degradation, water quality and biodiversity.”

What have the Government done to address that challenge, other than miss their own so-called legally binding date to publish the targets promised under the Environment Act 2021?

Has there been any progress on the Government’s half-hearted food strategy from a few months ago? Although we all accept that there are big cost pressures, a more active Government would be using their convening power to make a difference. Will the Minister tell us how often he meets the major players in the industry? What are they telling him? What is he telling them? Is it down to just the big retailers to decide the nation’s food policy, or does anyone else get a say? Perhaps he can tell us how often the Food and Drink Sector Council meets and what it has achieved to tackle this crisis. Its website says that it last met in February, although I understand there was a more recent meeting. What did the Minister get from it? Can he tell us?

What assessment have the Minister and his colleagues made of the impact of the rising cost of food? What discussions has he had with Department for Education colleagues on the impact on children of real cuts in the nutritional value of school meals? Caterers try to provide meals, and yet they are handed just a few pence to make up the loss when costs soar.

What are the health consequences of the changing buying patterns, as people move to cheaper options? What discussions has the Minister had with colleagues at the Department of Health and Social Care; or has he succumbed to his Secretary of State’s clear intention to dump any plans to tackle the obesity crisis that Henry Dimbleby highlighted? There are plans to ban adverts for foods that are high in saturated fat, salt and sugar before 9 o’clock. Why, when type 2 diabetes is rising faster in children and young adults in Britain than anywhere else in the world, has implementation been delayed until 2025?

I doubt we will get any answers today. I wish the Minister and his colleagues a merry Christmas and a happy new year, but my sense is that on the cost of food—a very real issue facing every family in the country this Christmas—this Government have nothing to say, and frankly they show little interest. As always, their message is, “Leave it to the market; it is nothing to do with us. You’re on your own.” For too many this Christmas, that is exactly how it will feel.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) for securing this debate and I congratulate all Members who have spoken passionately on the topic.

The rise in food prices is a result of global shocks, including a spike in oil and gas prices and the conflict in Ukraine. I certainly recognise the impact that rising food costs is having on households across the country. My Department is engaging closely with industry to understand potential pressures on our food supply chain, which has shown resilience in coping with unprecedented challenges.

As the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) said, we have had a number of debates in this Chamber. He has speculated about us running out of turkeys for Christmas, predicting Armageddon. I reassure him again today that no such Armageddon has taken place, and turkeys will be available for Christmas. Despite his gloom and doom, the measures that the Government have put in place are delivering against the challenges that he described some time ago.

We continue to monitor food prices using the ONS inflation figures. Recent pressures have been sustained, and food price inflation continued to rise to 16.5% in November, up from 16.4% in October.

The Minister talks about monitoring food prices. How often does he monitor the increase in food banks?

We continue to monitor food prices across the country. The hon. Gentleman also said that Brexit was a huge challenge for food prices. Actually, food price inflation is greater in the eurozone and the EU than in the UK, so I do not think that that is the challenge. Consumer food prices depend on a range of factors, including agri-food import prices, domestic agricultural prices, domestic labour and manufacturing costs and the sterling exchange rates. Some of the factors are influenced by our trading arrangements with other countries, which a number of Members referred to. Change in food prices is dependent on changes in one or more of those factors.

I am glad that the Minister is monitoring food prices, but does he monitor the cost of infant formula? The all-party parliamentary group on infant feeding and inequalities has been doing so, and many groups are concerned that the cost of formula is now outpacing the amount of money that people are getting through the UK’s Healthy Start programme. People just cannot afford it, and are watering it down.

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. The Government monitor all food prices. We are of course aware of the price of the grocery basket, so we are aware of the spikes in food prices across a range of products.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is taking action to maintain an efficient food supply chain by mitigating any potential burdens or friction that could otherwise drive up consumer food prices. In the UK, we are fortunate to have a large and resilient food supply chain. Our high degree of food security is built on supply from diverse sources, strong domestic production and imports through stable trade routes.

Has the Minister assessed the impact on food prices and business profitability for farmers of the 20% reduction in the basic farm payment this month?

The reduction in the basic payment scheme is well advertised. Farmers are aware of it. We engage on a daily basis with farms up and down the country, as we are about to roll out the new environmental land management schemes. In fact, I have been engaging with farmers today on some of the new schemes that are coming, to give confidence in the marketplace that those farmers will continue to produce food, as well as improve our environmental footprint and biodiversity. There is good news there, which will give our farmers the confidence to continue to produce great food.

The Minister will recognise that we cannot protect the consumer from price rises without protecting the food producer. What specific support are the Government providing to help UK farmers with the unprecedented rises in input costs that food producers are facing, and to deal with some of the supermarkets’ cartel behaviour in fixing prices, which is having an effect on producers and consumers?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. The honest truth is that a lot of support is going to primary producers to help them through the challenges they face. The energy scheme is helping producers, but a lot of the debate this afternoon has been diametrically opposed, with calls for lower food prices for our consumers and, at the same time, a rise in payments to our farmers who produce the food. We cannot have both. If farmers are paid extra at the farm gate—[Interruption.] Look at some of the margins in retail, production and manufacturing. For lots of those businesses, margins are being squeezed quite dramatically and there is a challenge. I would like to see more of the profit trickle down to primary producers. [Interruption.] We are absolutely in a place where we are engaging with primary producers to try to help them with that.

Will the Minister at least tell us what interventions he has made with retailers to make this happen, rather than just let it trickle down?

I have had lots of meetings with retailers and with many sectors. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the egg sector; we specifically had an egg roundtable last week, where we pulled together retailers, packers and primary producers to try to get some co-operation within the industry. The meeting was productive and conducted in a spirit of co-operation. There is clear willingness on the part of all parties to make sure the sector works, and we have recently seen improvements in both the supply of eggs and the sharing of costs across the supply chain. That is good example of where we as a Department recognised the challenge, pulled people together, got them around a table and made sure that we had a positive impact on the sector.

The Government are in regular contact with food and farming industries to ensure that they are well prepared for a range of scenarios. We continue to take all the necessary steps to ensure that people across the country have the food they need. Once again, I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby for securing the debate and bringing people together.

Before the Minister concludes, will he address the issue of hunger, particularly child hunger, which has been raised by so many Members? I appreciate his focus on farming—as a farming nerd, I like that—but there are kids who are going to bed hungry tonight. Will the Minister address that before he sits down?

There is a huge package of intervention from the Government to help families up and down the country who are struggling with the cost of living. The Government recognise those challenges. That is why the current Prime Minister, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, invested £37 billion in supporting households who are facing such challenges, to ensure they can pay their domestic bills and have a level of support. We are also investing in our local authorities to help them to help those families. That is what the Government are trying to achieve, but there are huge global pressures at play that make that very difficult and challenging.

I cannot take another intervention as I have to give the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby the opportunity to conclude the debate. I thank hon. Members for their time today and for the spirit in which the debate has been conducted.

I thank hon. Members for their powerful contributions; it has been a brilliant debate. I acknowledge the Minister’s interesting reply, but we need deeds, not trickle-down words. Listening to the leadership coming from the Minister and from the Government, Beveridge would be spinning in his grave. We definitely need something, and I am just not seeing it.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the cost of food.

Sitting adjourned.