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Poverty: Food Costs

Volume 728: debated on Wednesday 1 March 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of tackling poverty and the cost of food.

It is a pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank my colleagues for turning up today; there is very good attendance and I am sure they are all going to be very supportive.

The world’s farmers produce enough food on this planet to feed 1.5 times the global population. It is enough food to feed 10 billion people; there are currently about 7.6 billion people on the planet. In the UK we waste about 10 million tonnes of food every year, and yet we have seen a reported increase in food bank use. Takeaway sales are up year on year; the market is set to reach £23 billion this year, with us British people spending an average of £641 a year on takeaway food—and yet we see a rise in food bank use. We have a big obesity problem in the UK, and it is spiralling out of control. It is costing our NHS a massive £6 billion annually. That is set to rise to £9.7 billion each year by 2050—and yet we see a significant increase in food bank use.

No one should go hungry in the UK—we know that. We produce enough food across the world to wipe out global hunger.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this debate, and want to open an invitation to not only him but everybody here. I am the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on ending the need for food banks. The issue is clearly something the hon. Member cares about. Our annual general meeting is later this month; I hope to see him there.

That is a very kind invitation and I will do my very best to attend—thank you for that. Like I said, 40% of food goes to waste; that is 2.5 billion tonnes that we throw away each year on this planet. If that food was given to the people who need it, we could give chronically undernourished—[Interruption.]

Order. I am sorry, but there is a Division. We will be back here in 35 minutes, at seven minutes past five.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming—

To recap, I was talking about the amount of food wasted, not only throughout the world but more specifically in the UK. The UK has cut down its food waste in recent years, but we still throw away far too much edible food. The UK creates 9.52 million tonnes of food waste per year, according to the Waste and Resources Action Programme—WRAP, for short.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this tremendous debate forward; I am looking forward to making a contribution. Does he recognise that the likes of Asda, Tesco and some of the other larger shopkeepers already have a system in place for food waste? In my constituency of Strangford, in Newtownards town, all the stuff at its end date is put out for community groups, which can take advantage of it. Some of the big stores are already making steps in the right direction.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am going to speak about big stores such as Asda later, but the hon. Gentleman is quite right that they are doing their bit at the moment—I would like to see them do a little bit more.

A lot of the wasted food is disposed of during the manufacturing process. Some is disposed of by the retail and hospitality sectors, but a big chunk of waste comes from households all over the country, which are throwing away food on a daily basis.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this debate forward. What he says about wasted food is very important; the waste of food is something that most of us find very difficult to see, but it is criminal. He may not be aware of this, but on Scottish television last summer there were news stories over a number of weeks about soft fruit rotting in the fields because of a lack of seasonal agricultural workers to pick it. Does he agree that we need to take action to get workers in to pick that fruit?

I thank the hon. Member for her intervention, and she makes a good point. I am not fortunate enough to get Scottish TV where I live; we do not quite get the signal. Yes, there is a problem in the agricultural sector with seasonal workers. I did have a solution, but I was shouted down when I first got to this place. We have 90,000 people languishing in jails in this country, and we are about 90,000 people short for picking fruit and vegetables. I think that would be a good start. If we have a labour shortage, we need to look inwards.

I will move on. The hospitality sector alone tosses away about £3.2 billion of food a year, according to WRAP. Households could cause 70% of the UK’s food waste, throwing away about 6.6 million tonnes of food, of which 4.5 million tonnes is actually edible. That is far too much, especially at a time when nearly 70% of UK households are worried about their energy prices; I am worried about my energy prices. Some people think it may mean they are not able to buy enough food to carry on, according to the Food Foundation.

Overall, 6.4 million tonnes of completely edible food is thrown away every year. I think that is criminal. The consumable food that we waste costs the UK about £19 billion a year, which adds up to £284 for every single person in this country. Households alone get rid of edible food worth £13.8 billion. If we split that between all the UK’s 28.1 million households, each home would save £491 per year. Food waste presents a significant problem due to the volume of waste produced each year. In fact, it is estimated that in the UK alone, we throw away around 9.5 million tonnes of food waste annually, most of which will end up in an already overcrowded landfill.

Every day, I get emails and messages on social media from people saying that we have starving children in the UK, and that we voted not to feed schoolchildren. That is dangerous and misleading.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this really important debate. The Food Foundation published an opinion poll today on extending free school meals to every child whose household is on universal credit. The poll showed that almost eight in 10 of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents support that policy. With more than a quarter of children in his constituency living in poverty, will the hon. Gentleman join me in calling on the Chancellor to extend free school meals to every child living in poverty?

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. There is a myth in this country that if people are on universal credit, they are in poverty. I will dispel that myth right now. We have people—not just in my constituency, but all over the country—who are on universal credit, but have a household income of more than £40,000 a year. Now that is not poverty. If people in London on universal credit work a few hours, there is a loophole in the universal credit system meaning they can top up their wages by £30,000-odd a year. That is not poverty. Being on universal credit alone is not an indicator that a family are in poverty, so I totally dismiss that idea.

But I do admit that some families in this country are struggling, and they need our support. A few months back, I visited a school in Ashfield after concerned parents contacted me because the breakfast club had been stopped. The school had stopped providing free breakfasts because the private funding it had secured had run out. Those parents were concerned not about their own children, but about the more disadvantaged children from the poorer families in the area. So I contacted the school and asked what I thought was a reasonable question: “Why are you giving every single child a breakfast in the morning?” I did not get a breakfast, and my kids got a breakfast at home, so it is something new to me. The school told me that people were struggling to feed their own children at home.

I also asked if the school had asked for a donation from any of the families. The families I was speaking to wanted to make a donation to the school, but it said no. When I asked why, it could not answer me. Then I asked, “Why are some families unable to feed their children at breakfast? Why can’t they give them a slice of toast or whatever?” The school struggled to answer me. Eventually, it said, “Well, it’s the cost of living crisis, isn’t it?” I thought, “How much does Weetabix and a bowl of milk cost?” Not even the 30p that I’m famous for—it probably costs a lot less than that.

I wanted to help, so I went on to ask if I could meet the parents who were struggling, to give the whole holistic approach and see where they were going wrong, if we could help and if they had debt, budgeting or social problems. That was nearly four months ago, and I have still heard nothing back. Why have I got nothing back? I’ll tell you for why: there is a reluctance in certain parts of this country, now, about getting to the root of the problem. It is far too easy to say that there is a cost of living crisis. Yes, we know that people are struggling, that food prices are up and that energy prices are up. We know all that, but we cannot keep throwing taxpayers’ money at people. That is what it is: it is taxpayers’ money—our money, our constituents’ money.

We are talking about communities struggling. A report last week said that the minimum universal credit paid should be £120. We have got people receiving £85, so they are already down before we even factor in the rent. Does the hon. Gentleman understand the magnitude of the crisis that people are facing now regarding rent, food and the cost of everything? Is that coming through in his constituency? It is certainly coming through in mine, and it is certainly coming through in the national picture as well.

We have got to understand and quantify the magnitude of the problem. Also, how do we solve it politically? It is not by saying that someone should be able to afford a Weetabix and a pint of milk. How do we solve the problem of millions of people going hungry?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Yes, I do live in the real world. When I talk about these things in this place, I am talking on behalf of my friends, family, neighbours and constituents. I will take no lectures from anybody in this place about living in a deprived area.

I was listening carefully when the hon. Gentleman said that he wanted to meet the people using the service in his constituency that he talked about. He said that he wanted to see what the problems might be for people who were struggling to afford food, and that he had had no response in four months to his offer to speak to them to understand their circumstances better. I grew up in poverty—deep poverty. If my mother had the opportunity to discuss with a local MP why she was struggling, I do not think she would have taken that invitation up. That is quite a difficult conversation, and it can be quite intrusive.

Order. Before Lee Anderson comes in, I remind hon. Members that, although I accept that people are passionate about this issue, the more interventions there are, the less time there is for people who have not intervened. I ask Members to bear that in mind. It is a matter for hon. Members, but I will be clear and unambiguous on the time.

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I might say that if her mother had had a first-class Conservative MP like myself, maybe she would have been more comfortable coming for that advice. [Interruption.] It’s true.

I speak as a former adviser for a citizens advice bureau; I worked there for about 10 years. If hon. Members want to know about poverty, come and have a chat with me, because I saw these people on a daily basis. The people I used to see came with all sorts of problems—social problems, debt problems, benefits problems—and a lot of them had to rely on food banks. The first thing we used to do was go through an income and expenditure sheet with the service users. In most cases, there were lots of savings to be made. These people had not had the best start in life, a lot of them, and they needed help—a bit of education and a bit of support—with their bills and debts. They were paying ridiculous Provident loans off at high interest rates. They needed support; what they did not need was money thrown at them. Ten years later—it took me 10 or 15 years to learn this—I was seeing the sons and daughters of those families, who were coming to see me with the same problems that mum and dad had had 10 years before. We were not actually breaking the cycle; we were not supporting people.

I did a bit of work with my local food bank last year, as hon. Members will probably be aware—it was reported in some newspapers. I was delivering meals from the food bank to vulnerable families with an award-winning local chef; he works at a really good restaurant. After a few days of delivering meals, he said to me, “This is totally wrong. These people need proper help. They need teaching how to budget and how to cook a meal from scratch.” What we learned at the food bank was that people could not make a meal from scratch. They were struggling to cook a vegetable properly—to batch cook, to freeze stuff. He gave me a challenge. He said to me, “I can feed a family of five for 50 quid a week.” I said, “No, that’s nonsense. That’s rubbish—you can’t do that.” He said, “I’ll challenge you.”

So we went to the food bank and got the people invited to the college. There were schoolchildren there, as well as four MPs, including me, and the chef, and there were also some TV people. The day before, I got £50 and went with some schoolchildren to the local Aldi with a shopping list from the chef. The next day, we went back to the college, batch cooked five different meals and put everything in little packs, which we put away and delivered later to vulnerable families. And it worked out at 30p per meal.

I am not saying that people can cook on that scale at home—that is ridiculous—but what we are trying to prove is that if you learn how to cook from scratch, you get the right ingredients and you batch cook, you can save a hell of a lot money and make nutritious meals on a budget. Obviously, after that I was tagged as “30p Lee”. I don’t mind, because every time it comes up, somebody asks me, “Why do they call you 30p Lee?” When I tell them, they completely understand—so keep firing away and calling me 30p Lee.

Funnily enough, after this exercise I wrote to every single Labour MP inviting them to my food bank and to take part in it. I got two or three dismissive responses, but nobody else bothered to reply. The challenge was there, but nobody bothered to come.

What upsets me—this gets to me a little bit—is that there is a culture in some deprived areas where people are so dependent on food banks that it is like a weekly shop for them. One particular family who I was really trying to help were going to the food bank two or three times a week to get their groceries, but then I would see them in McDonald’s two or three times a week. My goodness. I do not want to stop little children going for a treat once in a while, but this is all about priorities. If you are really struggling for money and are going to a food bank two or three times a week, you should not be going out for fast food and getting takeaways every week. I know people are going to start sighing and ah-ing and saying, “He’s wicked and he’s cruel,” but those are the facts.

I never went for a McDonald’s when I was a kid, and I come from poverty. My mum and dad really struggled to feed us. He was a coalminer who worked seven days a week, and my mother was a factory worker. At the weekends, my dad did his garden. We had vegetables in there from top to bottom, and it also had chickens, rabbits and ducks. That was our food bank. We had nowhere else to go—that is what we did. We provided for ourselves. We have lost that over the past 20, 30 and 40 years, but we need to remind ourselves of where we have come from and to have those traditional values that our parents had. Food banks are being abused;  I know that, because constituents tell me every single day about people making it up, telling lies or whatever. Food banks are abused by people who do not need them. We should target the food banks.

Order. As I have said, I appreciate that this is a passionate subject, but I do not want people shouting across the Chamber. And can people stop saying “you”? They must address their comments through the Chair.

Thank you, Mr Dowd, and I do apologise. I get passionate about this subject, which is very close to my heart.

Ashfield, Mansfield and Bolsover are deprived areas. Many of the red wall seats are very deprived. They are deprived for a reason—we all know why, but I am not going to go into that now. We are going to see more and more fast food outlets—McDonald’s, KFC and others—springing up everywhere. They are springing up every 10 minutes in my area alone. Why are they coming to these deprived areas? It is because they know that there is a market there. We say that poorer people tend to use these places, and I know that that is true.

Food bank use is increasing in places such as Ashfield, yet obesity is also increasing in the same poor areas. Why is that? What we need is a proper food strategy in this country; I do not think we have had one for years. We have not had one since the 1970s. [Interruption.] You can laugh, giggle and scoff, but that is true. Why was it that in the 1970s, in the schools that I went to and all over Nottinghamshire, there were no obese children and we were fit and healthy? We did not have much money, but we ate less junk food and had a better diet and healthier lifestyles.

Last year, Henry Dimbleby gave the Government a national food strategy, which took around four years to complete. That is there; the Government have got that. That’s your food strategy.

Maybe it was a poor choice of words. What I meant was that we have not had that proper culture in this country for decades—that personal responsibility of feeding ourselves. I like to hark back to the days when I was growing up, because they are on my mind at this moment in time. We were a lot poorer; we had less money and less food, but we seemed to manage okay. I think we could all do a little bit more. [Interruption.] Whatever! You can chip away all you want, mate.

I hear this nonsense about junk food and processed food being cheaper than fresh food. It is not. The chefs who I speak to say that is absolute rubbish. You can still go and buy a big bag of veg for a couple of quid, and a bit of meat, and make wholesome, nutritious meals and batch cook. I have done that before. Parents have done that before. We can do it with a little bit of effort, education and training. People always bleat on about the Government.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again; he has been very generous with his time. When I visited the constituency of the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) with the APPG on ending the need for food banks, one thing we saw was kettle packs. Because people do not have access to equipment to make the nutritious food that the hon. Gentleman is referring to, they are forced to utilise kettles or other means. Does he accept that some people do not have the means to make that nutritious food in their own homes?

We had that problem with our food bank, which I helped out at. We were giving people vouchers to put the gas and electric on their meters. Then we had a complaint that they did not have any pots or pans, so we gave them pots and pans to make their food with. Then we had a complaint that they did not have a fridge or a cooker. Then we showed them how to apply for white goods, energy support grants and stuff like that through their utility companies. So there is no excuse.

We could go on and make excuses all day. We live in a great country, and there is a lot of support out there to get all these things—not just food, but the stuff to cook it in and help with energy bills. This Government have provided billions of pounds of support over the past two years, especially through covid. They have spent over £500 billion of taxpayers’ money.

I will close now because I know quite a few people want to speak. I will finish by going back to the “30p Lee” thing. It comes up every single day on social media. I made a little list earlier of celebrity chefs—millionaire chefs—who can make meals on a budget. Lesley Negus can make a meal for 20p. Jack Monroe can make a meal for 20p. The website has meals for 25p. Savvy Meals can do meals for under a quid. Even the BBC has recipes for meals under a quid. Jamie Oliver—£1 wonders. Asda has recipes for meals under a quid.—under a quid.

I mentioned the food blogger, Jack Monroe. She was celebrated last year in the Daily Mirror for producing a meal for a staggering 11p. These people are celebrated; they are national heroes. Yet when a Conservative MP tries to help a local food bank and people in his own community, he is called “30p Lee”. Like I say, it don’t matter to me.

I am not going to bang on. Somebody contacted me today from Derbyshire—not my constituency. She said:

“As a retired foster carer for Derbyshire, I taught our looked after children cooking skills. Batch cooking and storing meals in zippy bags (re-useable) and massively space saving for the storing in a second hand small chest freezer (for £30). Meals that cost pence to make (proven by costing out on a spreadsheet so extra skills learned there!) The key is the motivation to do this type of cooking when you can make the time, but the advantages of convenience and cost speaks for itself. They could feed themselves when independent for £20 a week. Indisputable!!!”

What a great lady!

Six people want to speak. I will call the Front Benchers at 17.43 pm, so at best people have two minutes each.

I will go at a rate of knots. I thank the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) for bringing this debate to the Chamber. The issue is of even more importance to us in Northern Ireland than it is anywhere else, because of the astronomical rise in production costs in Northern Ireland, rising transport costs, and the cost of the insidious Northern Ireland protocol. Food inflation has accelerated to record levels, and many households suffered a challenging Christmas due to soaring prices. The price of food in Northern Ireland has risen by 13.3% in the last month, up from 12.4% in the previous month; if we add those together, that is 25% in the last two months.

A friend of mine, Glyn Roberts, who is the chief executive of Retail NI, said:

“With cost pressures right across the supply chain, food inflation is becoming a huge challenge for households. Our members are doing everything they can not only to mitigate this and to limit prices increases for hardworking families in their grocery basket. With a 'cost-of-doing-business crisis', the most expensive business rates in the UK, rising energy costs, inflation and a fall in spending, 2023 is going to be the biggest ever challenge for Northern Ireland's high streets.”

The most recent statistics, for the 2020-21 period, suggest that some 316,000 people, or 17% of the population, in Northern Ireland live in relative income poverty before housing costs, and 12% of the population—approximately 223,000 people—live in absolute poverty before housing costs. Some 92,000 children live in absolute poverty—that is 21% of children in Northern Ireland. The number of children in poverty has risen in the last few years.

I am ever mindful to adhere closely and clearly to your timing indications, Mr Dowd, so I will finish with this. These figures are stark and clear. What is also clear is the fact that what may seem like a small increase in the cost of food to some of us in this Chamber is in fact a very difficult barrier to healthy food. We must step in to secure affordable access to good food for our constituents—especially for those in Northern Ireland, who paid the price for the Brexit deal. Work must be done, and it must be done now.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) for giving us what I think everyone looked for in his contribution. I suspect that everyone can leave happy with what they have heard and with what they came for.

In my two minutes, I will focus on my hit list of people who have annoyed me over the past year. We know that food inflation is running much higher across the country than the inflation rate overall; it is roughly 17% at the moment. We also know that inflation is a tax on the poorest, so the cost of food does matter. The poorer someone is, the higher the rate of inflation they experience because so much of their budget goes on energy and food. Retailers know that, but they avoid tackling it.

There is a convenience store on an estate called Grange Park in my constituency. It is known locally as Harrods, because of the extortionate prices it charges for basic goods. That is a classic example of the poverty premium; someone either pays more to buy locally, or they pay the bus fare to go to the large Tesco at Mereside on the outskirts of town. The consumer campaign Which? found that Tesco Express costs people 8% more on average. I accept that smaller stores have higher running costs, but that should not stop supermarkets equalising those costs so that they do not penalise those who have no choice but to shop there.

I tried to speak to the chairman of Tesco, John Allan, about this. He told Laura Kuenssberg in October that Tesco had

“a moral responsibility to look after people who, in the real world, are being impacted by”

the cost of living. Well, here is one way he could do that: by talking to me about what my constituents in Blackpool experience. Clearly, he finds the Leader of the Opposition a more interesting person to go and talk to than me. How offensive; I am an interesting person too. Come to see me, Mr Allan; it is not as grand as Canary Wharf, but come up to Blackpool—but he would not come up to Blackpool. He agreed to meet with me, but then he cancelled. I am now trying to beg him yet again to come and meet with me, as he did the Leader of the Opposition. Let us talk about how Tesco can really help my constituents and do a better job.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) for securing the debate, and for his certainly interesting take on tackling food poverty.

I want to make it clear at the outset that the catastrophe of hunger and poverty in our communities is the result of political choices made by this Government. If a Government cannot ensure that everyone has enough to eat—and not just to eat, but to thrive—they are a Government that is fundamentally broken. The time for sticking plasters is surely over. We need to legislate for a right to food and enforceable food rights, and to ensure that the Government of today are held accountable for the cost of food and ensuring nobody goes hungry.

I pay credit to Mayor Sadiq Khan. I am so happy that he is sorting out universal free school meals and introducing them in London for all primary school children, which is an essential part of the right to food. It is a fantastic move forwards, but it is clear that our communities are in crisis at the moment. I pay tribute to all the workers taking industrial action in defence of their communities, including the teaching staff in West Derby, who were out on the picket line yesterday. The 17% rise in the price of food is the biggest rise since 1977 and comes alongside the sharpest fall in wages since 1977. Food inflation up, wages down—do the maths.

It is really important to look across the piece at how people are being demonised. The demonisation of those in food poverty is an act of political cowardice by an Administration bereft of ideas to solve the problem, and lacking humanity toward the millions who are suffering and looking to the Government to lift them up and not punch them down. If reliance on charity alone was considered a sufficient guarantee for basic human needs in the UK, previous generations would not have legislated for universal state schooling and a national health service. The current horrific situation demonstrates that we need the same vision and ambition when it comes to food security. It cannot wait a moment longer.

It is a privilege to serve under you, Mr Dowd. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) for bringing this debate to us. I start by paying tribute to the many in my own constituency who are dedicated and devoted to helping those in need in a variety of forms, not least by preparing and delivering food through food banks. I thank them and acknowledge the good work that they do.

In the two minutes I have, I would like to draw attention to the inadequacy of our approach to poverty. This debate is about

“tackling poverty and the cost of food”

and I congratulate the hon. Member for Ashfield on not calling it food poverty. I have written an essay on this, “A Common Sense Model for Poverty”, which highlights the inadequacy of a purely financial measure of poverty. In the context of food, a simple example is that the price of a bag of pasta has risen from 50p to 95p. That is the food premium that my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield mentioned. The impact of that price rise is far bigger at the bottom of the affordability scale than at the top.

I will give three very quick observations. First, there are structural problems in our economy because it has accelerated the capacity to produce food through, for example, businesses focusing on adding value through processing to foods to make them more convenient, rather than focusing on nutrition or health. That is the maximising of profit, again at the expense of local food producers, and the supply chain suffers for it. I doubt that farmers who are worried about feed, fuel and fertiliser are seeing the benefits of many of the price rises in our shops. Finally, businesses are concentrating on the markets that can pay, not the local and global markets that need the food themselves. When it comes to health, we are all after a hot, filling and nutritious meal. That is well within our grasp.

I would like to conclude by mentioning the social benefits of food. The most powerful projects that I have seen are about bringing people together around the making and breaking of bread, so our approach needs to change. Market drivers introduce unhelpful factors—

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) on securing this debate. A mark of having brilliant parents—and I had brilliant parents—is that you do not realise that you were brought up in poverty until later, when you look back. One thing I can say about food poverty is that there is something worse than being in poverty and that is to be made to feel guilty about being in poverty. There is something worse than virtue signalling: vice signalling. There is something better than both: actual practical virtue. I praise my food banks and the food share schemes in Westmorland and Lonsdale and elsewhere in Cumbria.

I want to focus my minute and a bit on those who produce our food. I am desperately concerned that what Britain is doing at the moment with its agricultural policy is reducing the amount of food that we produce, which will inevitably increase the cost of that food. The Government’s transition from the common agricultural policy to the environmental land management scheme would actually be one of that rare, rare species—a Brexit benefit—if it was done properly, but it is not being done properly. In my constituency, we have a thousand farms. All of them will lose at least 35% of their basic payment this year. Two per cent. of them have qualified for the new sustainable farming incentive. We need to pause the phase-out of the basic payment scheme, so we can protect our farmers and stop the eradication of our ability to produce food. We need to look again at the perverse incentives in some aspects of ELMS, which give big cheques to very large landowners for clearing off their tenants, which is morally outrageous and will again reduce our ability to produce food. It is a foolish approach to pit nature against farming when they work beautifully together. 

If we lose farmers, we lose not only our ability to look after our environment, our natural landscapes and our biodiversity, but our ability to produce food. We need to go on to international markets to buy the food that we do not produce ourselves, which pushes up the costs of food for the poorest people on the planet. Protecting our farmers means producing food for us locally and keeping food prices down domestically and abroad.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Dowd.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) on securing this welcome debate, but I do not agree with many of the things he said. He thinks that people who use food banks are abusing them, cannot budget or cook properly, have access to huge amounts of food waste—

The hon. Member had plenty of time to speak; I have only two minutes. He has just made provocative statements completely detached from the facts as I have seen them at my local food bank and from visiting so many people in my constituency. In Southfields and in Roehampton with its Community Box, food banks are doing a fantastic job, but no one going to them wants to go there; they want to be able to go to the shops to choose their food and provide for their family.

In Sherwood, the Minister’s constituency, 1,233 emergency three-day food supplies were given out last year, and in my borough of Wandsworth, 10,000 emergency food supplies were given out. There is a reason for the huge increase in the need to go to food banks, and that is that the system is entirely broken after 13 years of the Conservatives breaking that system.

The people I meet who have gone to food banks are the best at budgeting, at working shifts, at making ends meet and at never wasting food. They do not want to visit food banks, but they are a lifeline in emergency times. Instead of blaming people who go to food banks, the hon. Member for Ashfield should have been looking at the two-child benefit cap, the bedroom tax and the frozen local housing allowance. I commend Sadiq Khan for bringing free school meals to London schools—they will make a huge difference.

In London, housing is the main issue, so I lead with some questions on that to the Minister. With the Budget coming up, will he speak to his right hon. Friend the Chancellor to urge him to use it to end the freeze on the local housing allowance, restoring it so that it covers the cheapest third of rents in an area? With April looming, will the Minister reassure my constituents by ruling out any increase in the Government’s energy price cap from April, but instead pass on recent falls in the gas price to households, so that they will not need to rely on food banks anymore?

I will be as brief as possible. With inflation at a record high, rising again to reach 17.1% in the four weeks to 19 February, one quarter of people say that they are struggling financially, versus one in five this time last year. That is why people are going to food banks. There are social, physical, mental health and economic costs, as food inflation is one of the largest contributing factors to general inflation. Basic foodstuffs such as bread and milk have soared in price. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown that more than 17 million households across the UK go without essentials and 13% admit that they have skipped meals. How can we hear such statistics and not be ashamed?

The Trussell Trust reports that food bank use is soaring, as the cost of living in general bites into households. Food bank users tend to be those who are destitute, disabled or in single-parent households. Those on universal credit are not well off, and they often have to contend with the five-week wait for the benefit and being put in the ludicrous position of having to pay back benefit from their universal credit when they receive it. Given that a bank would never give a loan to those on universal credit, I have never understood why the state thinks that such people are able to pay back from the pittance they receive from Government. All that does is drive people further and further into poverty, which drives them further and further from work. Who does that benefit? Our welfare state is simply not doing enough to support people.

The hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson), who introduced the debate, talked about how he had spoken to and met people in poverty. Perhaps he has noticed that poverty bleeds into every aspect of someone’s life. Material poverty breeds poverty of self-esteem, of world view and world horizon, of ambition, of health and of life outcomes. He has seen these things, I suppose; I have lived these things. He actually said, “I have seen these people.” Well, I was one of them, and I can tell him that they are not living high on the hog, and it is ludicrous to say so.

The hon. Gentleman wants to speak to people who are poor, but they would not come and speak to him. I would gently say to him that it is staggeringly insensitive of an MP, who is on a pretty good wage by anybody’s measures, to think he should be able to lecture those who are living and struggling on universal credit or low pay. I would not take kindly to that; indeed, I do not know many people who would take kindly to being told by somebody who is well off what they were doing wrong as they struggled to survive and feed their family every day.

I am a great fan of the novels of Charles Dickens, and as I was sitting listening to the hon. Gentleman, for all the world he reminded me of Mr Scrooge—without the compassion. Add into these difficulties the economic damage of Brexit and it is not good enough to tell people who are struggling that they need to buck up—that they need to work more shifts, try harder and buy containers to batch cook. It simply is not good enough. It is complacent and staggeringly insensitive, and when the Minister gets to his feet and offers a perhaps more measured approach, I hope he will tell us what more he can do to help families and households who are struggling. I know that he will tell us what has already been done, but he will appreciate that that is not enough when we have children going hungry, families relying on food banks and no end to this pain in sight, because the soaring food inflation is not expected to ease any time soon.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Dowd. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) on securing this debate. I am also grateful, as ever, for briefings from Sustain and the National Farmers’ Union, among others.

The rise in food poverty and the emergence of food banks is one of the most shameful and baleful consequences of 13 years of Conservative Government. In 2010-11, the Trussell Trust was operating 35 food banks; last year, it was 1,400. While we all applaud its work and we are extraordinarily grateful to our local food banks—I pay tribute to the volunteers and supporters in my city of Cambridge—our goal must be to put food banks out of business by ensuring that they are no longer needed. Let us be clear: although there are unwelcome shortages on supermarket shelves, the issue with food poverty is a money problem, not a food problem. There is enough food in our communities, but not everyone has enough money to access it. That is the problem that needs to be resolved. I would like to hear from the Minister just what discussions he has had with colleagues on how they intend to tackle this problem.

We have had some powerful contributions to the debate, particularly from my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) and for Putney (Fleur Anderson. We should indeed be angry about how our country has got to this state. It increasingly feels like a country drowning in a worsening cost of living crisis, high inflation, rising food prices and stagnating growth. Up and down the country, too many of our constituents are suffering constant anxiety about how they will make ends meet. We heard this week that energy bills will continue to rise in the coming year, which combined with wages failing to keep up with inflation means that people will be poorer. That means less for essentials, including food.

The figures from the Food Foundation make grim reading. In April 2022, 7.3 million people, including 2.6 million children, were in food poverty across the UK. Data out today, again from the Food Foundation, shows that the number of households where children are experiencing food insecurity has nearly doubled in the past year. In January 2023, 21.6% of households with children reported that their children had directly experienced food insecurity in the past month—an estimated 3.7 million children—compared with 11.6% the previous January.

Another clear indicator that people are suffering food poverty is the rising number of people who are turning to food banks. In 2021-22, the Trussell Trust supplied 2.2 million three-day emergency food parcels to food bank users. It is expected that the next annual figures will show a marked increase. That is a view supported by November’s data from the Trussell Trust, which shows that 1.3 million emergency food parcels had been provided to people in the six months between April and September 2022, a third more than during the same period in 2021.

It just goes on: the latest ONS figures, released just two weeks ago, showed inflation of food and non-alcoholic drink prices—up 16.8% in the year to January 2023. The consequences are severe. In January and February, more than four in 10 adults said they had to spend more than usual in the previous two weeks to get what they normally buy when food shopping. In November and December, about one in seven adults said that in the previous two weeks they had been worried about running out of food before they had money to buy more. That rose to one in four adults with dependent children, and 29% for adults living in the most deprived area in England.

I am afraid that everything is going in the wrong direction and I ask the Minister to reflect on why that is the case. What has gone so wrong over the last 13 years to cause such a surge in food bank use? When does he think we will no longer need food banks—or are they a permanent feature for the Conservatives? There are some practical things the Government could do. Just why did they pull the funding for FareShare after its successful trial to tackle food waste? That scheme helped to cover the extra costs to small-scale farmers, growers and producers of redistributing their good-to-eat waste food rather than letting it go to waste. The trial resulted in 85% more fruit and vegetables reaching frontline charities and community groups. The Government funding ended in 2020 and, despite widespread calls, has not been continued. Why not, and why have the Government been so parsimonious when it comes to the suppliers of school meals, which face endlessly rising costs but have to try to provide nutritious meals with only a few extra pence?

Much more could be said, but I am conscious that this is a short debate. Disgracefully, we now live in a country where food poverty has become endemic. It is a record of which the Conservatives should be ashamed.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) on securing the debate. Given the time restrictions, it will be difficult for me to respond to all the points that have been made, but I will start by recognising the impact that high food prices are having on household budgets.

High food prices are a result of many different factors, including agrifood import prices, domestic agricultural prices, domestic labour and manufacturing costs, the exchange rate for sterling—and not least, of course, Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine and the aftershocks of the pandemic, which are having a global impact, with food prices rising at home and abroad. Other countries are experiencing high food price inflation, with 16% being recorded in the euro area in December last year. Rising food prices are a big contributor to the high levels of inflation that people are currently experiencing. However, we have seen a slight fall in the official food price inflation figures for January. We will continue to watch and monitor the situation as food price inflation continues to move around.

Given the impact of high food prices, tackling inflation is the Government’s No. 1 priority. We plan to more than halve inflation this year, and we are monitoring all key agricultural commodities so that we can work with the food industry to address the challenges that it faces. Low-income households are most affected by high food and energy prices, which is why we have provided a package of support to help people with rising food costs. The Government have already committed £37 billion to support households with the current exceptionally high cost of living, £1 billion of which has gone towards help with the cost of household essentials.

Looking forward to April, the Government will uprate benefit rates and the state pension by 10.1%. The benefit cap levels will increase by the same amount in order to increase the number of households that can benefit from these uprating decisions. In addition, for 2023-24, households on eligible means-tested benefits will get up to £900 in cost of living payments, which will be split in three payments of about £300 across the 2023-24 financial year. A separate £300 payment will be made to pensioner households on top of their winter fuel payment, and individuals in receipt of eligible disability benefit will receive a £150 payment.

In order to better understand who is currently experiencing food poverty, we introduced a set of questions into the family resources survey to measure and track food bank use from April 2021. The first results of those questions are due to be published very soon, subject to the usual quality assurances.

The Government spend around £1 billion annually on free school meals, and protections are in place to ensure that eligible pupils keep their free school meal entitlement even if their household circumstances change. The end date for that has now been extended to March 2025. The latest figures from the Department for Education show that around 1.9 million pupils are claiming free schools meals, which equates to 22.5% of all pupils, up from 20.8% in 2021.

Will the Minister address the pressures on school meal providers, which have faced hugely increased costs and have had little extra help to provide nutritious food?

Of course, we recognise that there are cost pressures throughout the whole food supply chain. That is why the Government are offering huge amounts of support to households to try to cope with that. However, we acknowledge that there are challenges—not just in schools but in the Prison Service, the NHS and many Government Departments. That is why we need to address inflation, which is one of the Government’s highest priorities.

We continue to work with food retailers and producers to explore a range of measures that they can take to ensure the availability and affordability of food. It would be remiss of me not to mention the recent issues that we have experienced with the supply of certain fruit and vegetables to supermarkets in the UK. We are continuing to engage with industry throughout this period, and I hosted a roundtable with retailers this week to explore with them their contractual models, plans to return to normal supplies and contingencies for dealing with supply-chain challenges. I have also asked them to look again at how they work with our farmers and how they buy fruit and vegetables so that they can further prepare for these unexpected incidents. In the meantime, I reassure hon. Members that the UK has a highly resilient food supply chain, which was demonstrated during the covid-19 response. It is well equipped to deal with situations with a potential to cause disruption.

I want to address the comments made by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron). He tried to divide the House this evening on the statutory instrument that provides funding for ELMS. That is a real disappointment and a misunderstanding of the challenges that we face. In effect, he tried to keep English farmers tied to the EU’s bureaucratic and tiresome common agricultural policy by trying to shout down that legislation.

I will give way in a moment. The hon. Gentleman made a point about wealthy people. Under the CAP, 50% of the budget went to 10% of landowners, and it did little to support food production or environmental improvements. With the new schemes, we are trying to ensure that nature works hand in hand with those who produce food.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He will know that all parties here are united in our support for the principles of ELMS, and we think that moving to public money for public goods is the right thing. I said on the record just a few moments ago that the CAP was one of the worst aspects of the European Union, and it is one of the few reasons to celebrate not being in it. The key thing is that the Minister’s party and the Government supported, proposed and promised £2.4 billion of ringfenced farm support. I am sure that he will confirm that that money is not being spent at the moment, because the basic payment scheme has been withdrawn and the new schemes are being taken up by a fraction of those to whom they should be available. That means he has broken that promise to farmers.

No, I absolutely stand by that commitment.  We will spend £2.4 billion of taxpayers’ money every year in this Parliament. If we fall short and spend only £2.3 billion this year, we will roll that forward and spend £2.5 billion next year. In rolling out those schemes, farmers clearly needed time to adjust, have a look at those new schemes and ensure that they could bid and understand the process that is taking place. It has taken a while to get those schemes right, but we worked with farmers to ensure that they were right. We have now rolled them out, and there are huge numbers of farmers bidding for capital grants on slurry and equipment, to enter into sustainable farming incentive agreements and get involved with countryside stewardship. That is the right thing to do and the right way to go forward.

I am conscious of time, Mr Dowd, because I want to give my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield time to respond. I thank him for introducing this debate. The Government have a shared ambition to ensure that our food system delivers healthy and affordable food for everyone. I thank him and other colleagues for engaging in this debate.

I am grateful for the opportunity to respond. I will be very brief. I am little disappointed with some of the divisive comments from the Opposition. I don’t do divisive politics. I like to debate sensibly. It was interesting that I accepted every single intervention, but the Opposition would not accept one. That is what debates should be all about—accepting interventions.

Some of the divisive language was awful. I did not say that “everybody” was abusing the food bank system or that “everybody” who uses a food bank cannot cook or budget—I said, “some people”. We should be very careful with tone and delivery because of tomorrow’s headlines in the papers. It leads to hatred, nastiness and threats. All I am going to say is that the Opposition need to be very careful with the way they speak in this place, because it does lead to some horrible and divisive behaviour.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of tackling poverty and the cost of food.

Sitting adjourned.