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Food Costs

Volume 728: debated on Thursday 23 February 2023

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs works closely with other Departments and industry to keep abreast of price trends for food products. We are monitoring the situation and taking relevant action to maintain an efficient food supply chain by mitigating against potential burdens or frictions that could otherwise drive up food prices.

I am tempted to ask the Minister the price of a pint of milk, but no doubt his officials have put that in his brief.

As UK supermarket price inflation hits record highs, consumers are paying just under £800 more on their annual shopping bill, which is in part due to Brexit and the rising cost of animal feed, energy and fertiliser, with agricultural costs rising by almost 50% since 2019. Although farmers are fundamental to food production, they are bearing the brunt of the cost of the food crisis. Farming is an energy-intensive industry, so why is it not getting the same level of support as less energy-intensive sectors? Has the Minister met the Chancellor to discuss how better to support domestic farming?

The hon. Gentleman tries to blame Brexit, but even he will recognise that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine caused enormous ripples around the world, not only in energy prices but in food prices. Ukraine was the breadbasket of Europe and supplied huge volumes of cereals. Of course, rising global gas prices caused a rise in the cost of fertilisers. The Government recognised all that and tried to help farmers through this process and to assist them to produce great-quality food.

I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I am a major share- holder in a food production company.

What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the National Farmers Union’s call to protect home-grown food production?

We have been at this week’s NFU conference to talk directly to the NFU and to listen to farmers’ concerns. We recognise that there are huge pressures on UK domestic food producers and farmers, which is why we are helping them with grants to invest to make their businesses sustainable for the future.

Farmers from across the country met in Birmingham this week—the right hon. Gentleman and I sat on the same table for dinner—at an unprecedented time, with pressures seemingly coming from every direction to create a perfect storm. Although there might have been differences about the scale of the impact, there was consensus that the Environment Secretary had a pretty bad day at the office. Some described it as a “slow-motion tractor crash” or “calamity Coffey.” Joking aside, it was an insult to the very foundation of our food security and hard-working British farmers.

Everyone has the right to have a bad day at the office —I have had a fair few myself—but we have a responsibility to reflect on it and to right the wrong. Will the Environment Secretary, not the Farming Minister, use this opportunity to apologise?

I am very happy for the Farming Minister to apologise on the Secretary of State’s behalf for her outrageous display at the NFU conference in Birmingham yesterday. Will he use this opportunity?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Secretary of State cannot answer this question, because of parliamentary procedure; I am obliged to answer, because I am answering—

Let me help. The Secretary of State will be coming in at topical questions, where she can open with a statement and can respond to anything she wants to then. I also say to both sides that I am really bothered that it is nearly quarter to 10 and we are still only on Question 2. Let us make progress.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Secretary of State can speak for herself, but we had a successful meeting with farmers in Birmingham. There were some robust exchanges, but that is what we welcome and we engaged with. We continue to work with the NFU and other groups that represent the farming industry.

We are going to have the urgent question on food security a bit later, so I will not labour that at this point. I also thank you for granting the UQ, Mr Speaker. Will the Minister confirm whether the Government have convened a cross-government committee to look at food security in this country and, in particular, the levers they can deploy? I am referring to financial support for farmers, support for energy-intensive food producers, and dealing with labour shortages and all the other issues about which, as he would have heard in Birmingham, farmers feel very frustrated, as it does not feel as though progress is being made on them.

Of course, there are Cabinet Office committees that look at all these challenges, but we in the Department continue to meet retailers on a regular basis. We are convening a roundtable with supermarkets to see how we can assist with those supply chain challenges that we face. We are gripping the situation and trying to assist where we can. It is down to the market to supply where it can, but there are huge challenges, including those in Morocco and Spain that have caused disruptions to food supplies in the UK at this moment.

According to the Office for National Statistics, the consumer prices index rose by 9.2% in the 12 months to December last year. Food inflation is at its highest since the 1970s, reaching 16.9%, making daily essentials such as butter, milk, pasta, eggs and cooking oil, unaffordable for those who are struggling in the cost of living crisis. Of course, that comes alongside the prospect of rationing. Food inflation is not going to fall for the foreseeable future, so what plans will the Minister put in place to ensure that affordable supplies of food can be made available? What steps will he take to make sure that food inflation falls?

The hon. Lady will be familiar with the huge package of support that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has put in place for families across the country, including in her constituency in Scotland, to help people with the rising cost of energy and food. That is the right thing to do; it supports those families with those challenges. There is also cash available for local authorities to try to help where the situation is very challenging.