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Brexit: Healthy and Nutritious Food

Volume 794: debated on Thursday 20 December 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they will take to ensure that healthy and nutritious food does not become more expensive after Brexit.

My Lords, food prices depend on a range of factors, including commodity prices, currency exchange rates and oil prices. These will continue to apply after leaving the EU. Our future agriculture policy will enable farmers to produce healthy, homegrown produce. In addition, our ability to develop trade deals will maximise global opportunities that work for farmers, producers and consumers. This approach will help create a competitive domestic market, offering consumers the best price and a wide choice.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. I am not completely convinced by his confidence. What are the Government’s plans for Healthy Start vouchers, which are a lifeline for the most vulnerable mothers and children in society? The eligibility for, and the uptake of, these has declined dramatically in the last five years. There are currently fewer than 500,000 people eligible—a 30% reduction since 2011—and uptake by those eligible has also fallen. The price of £3.10 per week per child has not risen since 2009. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government will be encouraging more women to take up this lifeline? Will the Government look at increasing the £3.10 post Brexit, when I and many people am fairly sure prices will go up, not down?

My Lords, I acknowledge the noble Baroness’s long-standing interest in these matters. She referred to the healthy food scheme. It is a £142 million scheme, which includes Healthy Start, the nursery milk scheme and the school fruit and vegetable scheme. It is really important that young people and vulnerable people have healthy food at affordable prices. This is part of helping in that regard. I will take this matter up with colleagues in other departments responsible for the food schemes. I very much encourage eligible people to claim. Clearly, milk, fruit and vegetables are an important part of diet.

My Lords, yesterday, in evidence to the EFRA Committee, Michael Gove said that, in the event of no deal, it would be particularly difficult to guarantee perishable foods coming on to the market. That would be impeded and would be likely to drive up some prices. Is it not about time that the Government were completely honest with the British people and said that, in addition to all the other adverse impacts that it would have, a no-deal outcome could have serious implications for public health in terms of access to fresh food?

My Lords, that is of course why the Government think that a deal should be made and why we are urging that as the best way forward. However, it is clearly the responsibility of any Government to plan for all scenarios. Over the last two years, the border delivery group, chaired by the Permanent Secretary at HMRC and the Second Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, has been working extremely effectively, looking precisely at ways of ensuring a steady supply of produce. On the issue of nutritional and specialist foods, especially in terms of the health service, that has been given a particular priority so that vulnerable people are in a position to receive nutritional food.

My Lords, can my noble friend indicate whether he thinks that oranges are a healthy food? If so, can he confirm that, under the customs union and our membership of the European Union, the tariffs on oranges are set higher to coincide with the Spanish harvest in order to prevent people buying cheaper oranges from South Africa and elsewhere? So leaving the customs union will mean access to cheaper nutritious food from around the world. This scaremongering has got to cease if people are going to be honest with the British people.

My Lords, 60% of what we consume in this country is homegrown, and we produce 75% of all that we could possibly produce in the UK—clearly, it is difficult for us to produce oranges and other citrus fruits. There will be an opportunity in terms of part of the food chain and food supply, and our future tariff policy will ensure that tariffs are set in the best interests of UK consumers, businesses and farmers. Clearly, we have always imported a lot of food because of the difficulty of producing in this country certain foods that we all enjoy. Therefore, that is absolutely within scope and these are the sorts of things that we will consider.

My Lords, given that 80% of vets in abattoirs are from the EU and that they are vital for the safety of our meat, will the Government look at the visa system prior to Brexit? I am told by scientists that the current visa system is long-winded, impenetrable and not fit for purpose. If the system cannot be understood by highly intelligent scientists, and if it takes many hours of their valuable time to bring members of their team into this country from abroad for scientific research, there is clearly a need for urgent radical improvement. Will the Minister ensure that that happens?

My Lords, I place on the record my experience of meeting many of those vets. The service provided by EU nationals in a wide range of sectors—the noble Baroness mentioned the veterinary and food safety sectors—is invaluable to us. We will want them to remain here, and indeed we will want other people to come to this country to help us in many industries. I assure the noble Baroness that we are working very closely with the British Veterinary Association and all vets to cover all contingencies, because the EU nationals working in the State Veterinary Service are invaluable to us.

Will the Minister have a word with the secret society that runs this place and find out why the European Union Committee report Brexit: Food Prices and Availability, published in May this year, has never been debated on the Floor of this House? There is a conspiracy not to debate this issue by those who run this place.

I am a former Deputy Chief Whip and I do not feel that there are conspiracies in the work of the usual channels. I really welcome the questions we have had on food prices to give the Government an opportunity to set out what they seek to do. I will perhaps make inquiries, but I very much look forward to whenever that debate is put on the Order Paper and to the small contribution I might make.

My Lords, may I draw the Minister’s attention to the amount of fresh food waste emanating from farms? A recent survey by the charity Feedback estimates that around 37,000 tonnes of fresh produce, or 16% of crops, is wasted every year—enough to provide 250,000 people with the recommended five portions of fruit and veg every day for a year. Much of this is to do with supermarket supply chains. Would my noble friend confirm that the Government are doing what they can to support the farming community on this loss?

It is not only an issue for farmers but an environmental one as well, and that is why the resources and waste strategy published this week promotes awareness of the importance of bearing down on food waste both by supermarkets and by ourselves as householders. I am afraid that 70% of our food waste comes from all of us, as householders. So yes, we must do more with the supermarkets through WRAP and other means, but we must all do better ourselves. It should not be the case that we waste food, and what comes from the farm to the fork we should not waste at all.