Food Prices and Food Poverty
Opposition Day — [Un-allotted Day]
Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton, Conservative)
I congratulate Mary Creagh on calling the debate. In welcoming it, I draw attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. However, there are many other issues that the hon. Lady could have mentioned, which exercise those who live in rural communities. I recognise that Wakefield may not be quite as rural as Thirsk, Malton
and Filey, but if we consider poverty among the farming community over the past 10 years, particularly in small upland farms, it is fair to say that farmers are not in a position to employ many outside their own family. Normally the farmer, his wife and his family work on the farm, and that has led to diversification when possible. In some of the most successful examples, such as Shepherds Purse cheeses and Get Ahead Hats, the wife has diversified or gone out to work separately.
The hon. Member for Wakefield also failed to tackle the increasingly important issue of farm-gate prices, as opposed to rising supermarket prices. I would like to draw attention to that. In my constituency, I can point to pockets of rural poverty in the Hambleton district. In the Ryedale district there is a poverty gap, for those on low incomes, between their low wages and the particularly high cost of housing.
DEFRA’s farm business income report showed that the cost of fertiliser and animal feed rose by nearly 30% each in 2010-11, the last year for which figures are available. That means that the livestock and horticulture sectors have suffered falls year on year. I draw the attention of the hon. Member for Wakefield to the fact that livestock farm income fell by 29% in lowland areas and 19% in upland areas, with horticulture income down 27%.
The hon. Lady did not consider exchange rates, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned. What if the unthinkable were to happen and the euro failed—or what if even one member country fell out of the euro? The question being asked coming up to spring in auction marts, particularly in the north of England, where most of the lambs are exported, especially to France, is: how and in what currency will farmers be paid? They are starting to wonder whether they will be paid at all. We had the opportunity to cover some of those issues in today’s debate, and I am disappointed that we did not.
I welcome the debate, but, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State explained, we are looking at the high cost of fuel as well as the increased costs of feedstuffs and fertiliser. As the Chancellor of the Exchequer has said on so many occasions, oil prices are set globally. The price of cereals and many farm commodities are set internationally.
I want to focus on the role of supermarkets, and particularly the part of the motion that deals with the groceries code adjudicator. I draw the House’s attention to a successful one-off evidence session that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee held. The hon. Member for Wakefield has included kind words about the Committee in her motion. At the evidence session I was very moved by a category of people to whom, again, the hon. Lady did not refer—individual fruit and vegetable growers and horticultural growers, who have the loosest possible arrangement with supermarkets and virtually no protection. We were shocked to realise that their contracts could be terminated at a moment’s notice. They need protection and to be able to make a complaint anonymously. As we said in the letter that we submitted to the Chairman of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee:
“For many years there has been a ‘climate of fear’ in the groceries supply chain. We therefore endorse the provision in the draft Bill that will allow the Adjudicator to receive anonymous complaints from direct or indirect suppliers about retailers breaking the Groceries supply Code.”
I hope some good can come out of today’s debate and urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to use her good offices to put pressure on the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills; that is the responsible Department.
I commend all the Committee’s conclusions without hesitation, but I shall draw attention specifically to two of them.