In the light of the increased interest that has been expressed in participating in this debate, I have decided to impose an eight-minute limit on each Back-Bench speech. For the benefit of the shadow Secretary of State—Mary Creagh —and the Secretary of State, I remind them that there is no time limit on Front-Bench speeches, but I hope that they will apply a certain self-denying ordinance in order to enable more of their colleagues to contribute than would otherwise be possible.
I beg to move,
That this House
notes that food prices rose by more than 4 per cent. over the last year and that an increasing number of families are relying on foodbanks;
is dismayed at Government delays to the Groceries Code Adjudicator and that it has rejected recommendations by the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee to give it teeth;
believes that the Adjudicator should have the power to fine retailers and that third party organisations should be able to report retailers for unfair practices;
calls on the Government to bring forward proposals for the Groceries Code Adjudicator early in the next Parliament to ensure fairness across the food supply chain;
and further calls on the Government to work with the retail sector to provide more responsible, transparent price promotions and clearer unit pricing to offer genuine value-for-money for consumers.
I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will do their best to abide by your strictures, Mr Speaker.
On Friday, I visited a food bank in Bradford and met people who use its services. One woman had fled her violent husband when she was eight months pregnant. Another had left her husband but discovered that he had set up loans in their joint names for which she was still liable. There were women there who had held down high-powered jobs—one had been the personal assistant to the chief executive of a large bank in Canary Wharf—but, through a combination of bad decisions, bad luck and bad men, they had fallen on hard times.
One of the women apologised for not following politics, but said that she could not afford a television licence. Another described how she had found herself shouting at her children when they asked for a bit of jam on their bread, and how she visited relatives at teatime to ensure that her children were fed, while she herself went to bed hungry. Another described cooking tea for her children and eating their leftover food. One woman told me how, the first time she brought home a food parcel, she cried all night because she could not do something as basic as feed her own children.
The hon. Lady has mentioned food banks, and we have a very good one in Harlow. Can she explain why the previous Government stopped jobcentres handing out vouchers for local food banks? This Government have reversed that terrible decision.
I do not know the answer to that question. I am not sure whether it is the role of jobcentres to pass people on. There is a question mark over whether it is appropriate for a Government agency dealing with people’s welfare and benefits to outsource the food element of that to charities, so I throw that question back to the Government.
I went with the centre manager, Gareth Jones, to make up a food parcel. It contained cereal, tins of beans, four tins of meat and four tins of fish—all nutritionally balanced by a health visitor who advises the centre. The hardest part for me was choosing the four treats. Would the children prefer a pot of honey or a treacle sponge pudding, meringue nests or another pot of jam? Those are treats that we all put into our shopping trolleys without a second thought.
Gareth told me that it was important to put in a mix of branded and non-branded goods, so that when people opened the bags at home, they would feel valued. He told me how he holds pampering sessions at which mums can enjoy a hot chocolate while someone minds their children for half an hour. He described how the type of person coming to the food bank had changed from the homeless and destitute to the working poor. He said that families were referred to it by charities, social services or even—as Robert Halfon said—the jobcentre. When the state does not provide, the big society is left to pick up the pieces.
Much has been made of the importance of food banks, but does my hon. Friend share my concern that the New Life church in Billingham in my constituency has felt the need to set up a food bank for the first time, to help local people who are struggling? I support the church in doing so, but I am sure that she would agree that these facilities should not be necessary. Is not this another illustration of this Government’s failure to address the needs of the most vulnerable people in our society, who need food to eat?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend and pay tribute to the church in his constituency. We are seeing a proliferation in the number of food banks around the country and one of our challenges to the Government is to ask them to map where those food banks are and what social and economic policies are needed to tackle their proliferation and hunger in our society.
The Trussell Trust states that it now has 163 food banks around the country, with one opening every week. Last year, its food banks fed 61,000 people, 20,000 of whom were children, and this year it expects that figure to double.
Is my hon. Friend aware that in Oldham a food bank has been established for the first time? That was in the paper today. The vicar who set it up said that the banks are not just for homeless people but for hard-working families who are at crisis point. Reports by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and other organisations show that such problems exist up and down the country. Does my hon. Friend agree that the cuts and austerity are not working?
I agree and it all comes back to the social and economic failure of this Government. We are seeing these problems in places that were never hotspots for homelessness, such as Oldham. We associate them with our big cities and do not expect them in our smaller towns. There is a food bank in Wakefield now, whereas previously there was not one.
My hon. Friend might be aware of the campaign conducted by Sainsbury’s shortly before Christmas, where the company invited customers to buy an extra item with their shopping and pop it in a shopping basket so that it could be distributed to needy households. I was shocked when I attended my local Sainsbury’s to meet many people who said that they would like to help but could not afford to buy that extra item. Is not the idea that we can rely on charity to meet the need bound to be too limited?
I agree with my hon. Friend. If Sainsbury’s is inviting consumers to put their hands in their pockets, it should match that investment item for item, rather than simply adding it to its bottom line.
Bridgend food bank covers four of the 10 most deprived wards in Wales, so the service it provides is critical. In its recent report, it said that the people who applied for food there did so because of
“low income or ill health…repossession of their home…job loss or desertion by the…breadwinner, or” burglary,
“house fire or unexpected benefit cuts.”
People who go to food banks go for a variety of reasons, but is it not appalling that in 2012, when we are celebrating the Olympics and spending millions of pounds, people are still starving?
I agree. Charities such as the Salvation Army and HelpAge are seeing an explosion in demand as incomes fall, working hours are cut and prices rise.
I know that my hon. Friend, like me, comes from Coventry. Would she be surprised to know that 35,000 children will now be on the poverty line between Coventry and Warwickshire and does she think that that is an indictment of this Government’s failed policies? More importantly, many families are now struggling with electricity prices, heating bills and so on, which is feeding through—
I am very sorry to hear that my home city of Coventry has 35,000 children living in poverty. I am sure the number was similar when I was growing up there in the 1970s and 1980s and I am only sorry that much of the good work we did in government is falling away and poverty is increasing.
FareShare, which operates nationwide and works to redistribute aid from the food industry to charities, says demand is growing faster than supply. I pay tribute to both Sainsbury’s and Brakes, which recycle their in-date surplus to FareShare. It is important that the food is in-date so that there is no risk associated with that food, which includes fresh vegetables and, in particular, meat. Supermarkets could be doing much more to recycle food waste to hungry people. FareShare estimates it gets 1% of supermarket food waste, which prompts the question of where the other 99% is going. More of it should be recycled to hungry children in this country, which is one of the richest on earth. We can learn from food businesses such as Pret A Manger, which delivers surplus sandwiches around its London stores in the evening. We recall with horror the Tory proposals from Westminster council last year, when it wanted to make food distribution illegal. I pay tribute to all those who fought that proposal and protected people’s basic human right to a square meal even in the city of Westminster.
Gareth said that food is at the heart of everything his organisation does, but as my hon. Friend Mrs Moon said, charities are tackling a complex web of abuse, abandonment by the breadwinner, debt, unemployment, non-payment of benefits and other equally serious issues such as house fires, which she mentioned.
The hon. Lady is talking about the situation in the UK, but does she accept that rising food and commodity prices are an international phenomenon and that biofuels are taking out of production a lot of agricultural land, which means that food prices are rising not only in this country but around the world?
Commodity prices of certain things, such as wheat, have remained stable over the past 20 years, whereas others have risen. [ Interruption. ] Well, at the Oxford farming conference I saw the US Department of Agriculture’s figures on that. However, the hon. Gentleman is right that there is an issue with commodity pricing, particularly with the financialisation of that sector, which is leading to increased volatility, making it harder for food producers to hedge and putting on pressure. We can see from Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs figures that where we are self-sufficient we are more protected from those food price spikes than where we rely on imports, which have to have the costs of transporting those materials added on. Also, when our pound falls significantly against other world currencies that puts those prices up.
The people who food charities are seeing are no longer just the homeless and the drug and alcohol users but the respectable mums and dads who have fallen on hard times and the pensioners whose energy bills are so high that they cannot afford to eat. It is an utter disgrace that, although we are the seventh-richest country in the world, we are seeing thousands of people going to bed hungry at night—many of them children. We need to look this issue squarely in the face. A wave of invisible hunger is taking root in our cities, towns and villages. Those charities are the canaries down the mine telling us that respectable working-class and middle-class poverty is on the rise—and this is happening before the housing benefit changes and universal credit come in.
Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to the work that Hull city council is doing to reduce the cost of a school meal to £1 in recognition of the increasing cost that families are having to meet, including those families just above the benefit level for free school meals?
I pay tribute to Hull’s Labour council for that, as well as for the work it did when we were in government on its free school meals pilot to make sure that children in Hull had access to a free school meal. I know that that experiment has been carried out by Islington council as well, and that it helps to ensure there is a wide take-up of free school meals and that no stigma is attached to them.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning the free school meals pilot, which Newham is continuing for primary school children. It wanted to extend it to secondary school children but simply could not afford to do so. One thing that I heard from parents in that pilot was that school holidays were a particularly difficult time because their children were burning up a lot of energy but there simply was not the food or the money to feed those children properly during holiday time. Again, that is a hidden form of food poverty.
I pay tribute to Newham’s Labour council and I find it amazing that, at a time when councils are experiencing a 28% cut to their revenue, they are still managing to subsidise school meals or, as in Newham, to fund completely free meals. What a tragedy it is that that scheme cannot be extended to secondary schools there. I will return to the issue that my hon. Friend raises about school holidays.
Does my hon. Friend share my great concern that the removal of extended schools money means that many schools cannot afford to put on breakfast clubs? Many children who would previously have gone hungry if they had not got breakfast through a breakfast club are returning to a situation in which they do not have food in their stomachs, and so cannot learn and are not getting a healthy start to the day.
It is a tragedy that both breakfast clubs and after-school clubs are under threat. The chef Richard Corrigan did a film for Sky called “Richard Corrigan on Hunger” in which a lady who runs clubs that are provided for by a charitable provider, Magic Breakfasts, talks about children being admitted to hospital in the school holidays for malnutrition—that comes back to the point made by my hon. Friend Lyn Brown about the challenge that school holidays pose for families’ food bills—and scurvy appearing in children of primary school age, which I find deeply shocking.
I am listening with great interest to my hon. Friend’s speech. Does she accept that some of the problem is hidden, because really good, well meaning staff at schools are finding ways of feeding children during the day? That is hiding some of the scale of the problem.
That is true, and I am glad that there are so many passionate teachers—and passionate friends and neighbours, who may suspect that all is not well. I remember people telling me, when I brought forward my Children’s Food Bill, that they would invite their neighbours and friends in for tea on a Saturday and make sure that the children had as much meat and fruit juice as they could get into them, because it became apparent from the way that they were eating that they had not been fed since Friday lunchtime. That point, from my constituency of Wakefield, has certainly stayed with me.
In addition, the Agricultural Wages Board is to be abolished. That is a particularly nasty Government decision that has nothing to do with the deficit, but will take £93 million from the sick pay and holiday pay of low-paid agricultural, horticultural and food processing workers over the next 10 years. That money will leach out of the rural economy, where those workers live—out of local pubs, post offices and shops—depressing the rural economy when spending is already squeezed. It costs more to live in the countryside, and the abolition of the AWB could mean that we have in this country food workers who are unable to buy the food that they produce. We know that those agricultural workers are the most socially excluded people in our country. They are often migrants who speak limited English. Their work is seasonal, short-term and low-skilled. They are not in a trade union, and they move from county to county, picking daffodils in Cornwall in February, and following the crop and fruit cycle across the country.
After the Morecambe bay tragedy in 2004, Labour created the Gangmasters Licensing Authority to regulate labour providers in the food processing and packing, and agricultural, horticultural, forestry and shellfish-gathering sectors. Our aim was to ensure that workers received a minimum wage, decent accommodation, safe transport, contracts and decent working conditions, yet the GLA’s latest annual report reveals that, in the year to March 2011, it uncovered more than 800 workers being exploited in the UK. It prosecuted 12 companies and revoked the licences of 33 gangmasters. In 2010, there were horrific reports of children as young as nine picking onions in a field near Worcester. While the Government, continuing with their red tape challenge, are deciding on the future powers of the GLA, we say: “We will work with you to stamp out modern-day slavery, people trafficking, and serious organised crime, wherever they occur in these sectors.”
In government, my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn brought stakeholders together to look at the risks to our food security, and the challenges of feeding a growing global population sustainably. The result was Food 2030, the first Government food strategy since world war two. Peter Kendall, president of the National Farmers Union, has described how that strategy has been left on the shelf, and has been relegated to
“a one-line objective in the business plan” by the current Government. Labour gathered stakeholders together in September last year to look at that food strategy. We believe that we must not lose sight of the direction that it sets out, and we are pleased that the Government have set up their green food project, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. We look forward to it reporting this summer.
In government, along with many hon. Friends who are seated behind me today, I campaigned for improvements to children’s diets through the Children’s Food Bill. That led to nutritionally balanced school dinners, an end to junk-food vending machines in schools, and lessons on cooking and growing food as part of key stage 3.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the Government’s cuts to Sure Start have made that problem worse, because much of that educational knowledge about what is good food to give to children has been lost?
I agree. Sure Start has been an amazing tool in the fight for good food in families, and for cooking lessons. The 20% cut imposed by the Government centrally can only make that more challenging for those dedicated workers.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the Secretary of State for Education has decreed that free schools and academies do not have to meet the same nutritional standards in school meals as state schools?
Yes, it is slightly bizarre that that should be the case. I do not understand why, having battled so hard to secure minimum standards across the sector, the Secretary of State should think it acceptable to water them down, unless it is about saving money in pursuit of an ideological objective, but that could surely never be the Government’s intention.
I have mentioned “Richard Corrigan on Hunger” and the hospitalisation of children. People also talk in that programme about lunch boxes containing last night’s cold chips and ketchup. In government, we set up the School Food Trust, whose latest research shows that the average local authority-catered school dinner has gone up by 5p in the past year to £1.88 in primary schools, and by 4p to £1.98 in secondary schools. Councils are forced to charge more as their Government funding has been cut. We have heard today about councils that are doing their best to prioritise children’s nutrition. Those price rises could force parents to take their children out of school-meal provision and make do with a lunch box. If someone has three children who do not qualify for free school meals, £6 a day or £30 a week is an awful lot of money to find.
Food will be a defining issue for this century. The price spike in food commodities in 2008 showed that the era of cheap food may not be with us much longer. Increases in commodity prices—oil, fertiliser and pesticides—all contributed to year-on-year food price inflation of 6% last September: the second-highest increase in the EU, apart from Hungary. That 6% added £233 to the food bill of a family of two adults and two children. Food inflation, currently at 4%, remains higher than most pay rises that people will receive this year. As prices rise, people are eating less beef, lamb and fish, and more bacon. People are shopping around and trading down, and there is less supermarket loyalty. Figures from DEFRA reveal a 30% fall in the consumption of fresh fruit and veg by the poorest fifth of families since 2006. Those families are eating just 2.7 of their five-a-day fruit and veg.
We need a better understanding of what is driving up food prices, and how costs and risk are transferred across the supply chain. However, shopping is confusing and labels do not always show the true costs. Supermarkets are not required legally to show the unit cost on special offers, so they give the price pre-discount, which makes it impossible to compare prices on the shelf; or they give the price per unit of fruit, rather than by 100 grams, making comparisons impossible. We want supermarkets to be more transparent in their labelling to ensure that shoppers get the best deal. We want them to help people to eat healthily. Our traffic light system was rejected by significant players in the food industry, who have turned their back on what consumers want and need to make healthy choices.
We want a fair and competitive supply chain for growers, processors and retailers. The Competition Commission in 2008 found that there was an adverse effect on competition from unfair supply chain practices. It recommended that supermarkets with a turnover of more than £1 billion a year should be prevented from imposing retrospective discounts and from changing terms and conditions for suppliers. That leads to an unfair spread of risk and cost down the grocery supply chain, and to short-termism in relationships. [Interruption.] I thought I heard a phantom sedentary intervention, but that is not the case. We wanted a voluntary approach, but the supermarkets were unable to agree a way forward. That is why Labour in government secured cross-party agreement for a groceries code ombudsman to ensure a fair deal for farmers and producers. This Government’s delays and procrastination mean that the adjudicator will probably not be up and running until 2014-15.
I note that the motion expresses dismay at the Government’s delay, yet it asks for the groceries code adjudicator to be introduced in the next Parliament, rather than in the next parliamentary year, which I assume is a drafting error. Leaving that aside, given the fact that the first Competition Commission report was in 2000, and the Competition Commission report to which the hon. Lady refers was completed in 2008, what word other than “dismay” would she use to describe the Labour Government’s response to that report?
Order. May I remind everyone in the Chamber that the debate ends at 7 pm? There is already a time limit of eight minutes on Back-Bench speeches. Interventions should therefore be short, and I hope opening speeches will not be overly long.
I quote back to Andrew George:
“Every week the government fails to act, farmers are finding themselves in more difficulty.”
That is what he said. The supermarkets were insistent. We wanted an ombudsman. The supermarkets asked for a voluntary approach. It is right to try a voluntary approach first, which we did, but it did not work. This is the anti-regulation Government, but that approach failed. What we need now is action from his Government.
The commission recommended the powers to levy significant financial penalties, but the Government are recommending that only in reserve powers in the Bill, not on the face of the Bill, meaning that fines for anti-competitive practices are even further away than 2015. The
Financial Times quoted an executive of a large supermarket chain saying that
“it is an adjudicator rather than an ombudsman, which suggests that it is a watered-down role.”
Suppliers can complain anonymously, but they are liable for full cost recovery if the adjudicator finds that the complaint was vexatious or wholly without merit. The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee recommended that whistleblowing from within retailers should also be grounds for launching an investigation, which BIS Ministers are currently considering.
Consider this anonymous salad grower who works with the Food and Drink Federation:
“X”— the name of a supermarket—
“have expected us to support their current pricing campaign in store by contributing with reduced price returns, to maintain their margin demands. It has been made very clear that lack of support could be seen as showing no commitment to”— the supermarket—
“and the potential loss of business, forcing us to drop our prices and support the activity. Interestingly none of this has been put in writing.”
This suggests anti-competitive practices across the sector. If there is bad treatment at the top of the pyramid, that sets the tone for treatment all the way down the food chain, right down to the workers in the field. What we want is culture change across the food industry.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. In the case of many buy one, get one free offers, the cost is not borne by the supermarket. It puts pressure on the supplier, because the supermarket is saying, in effect, “Unless you fund this, we will move the contract somewhere else.” In the end, it is often the workers in that company who suffer.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Such offers increase the volume of sales, but often reduce the margin. That places enormous capital and liquidity costs on small companies in order to fund that as they wait for the money to come in from the supermarket.
I cannot allow that to stand. As somebody who worked for a supermarket chain for 13 years, may I tell the hon. Lady that suppliers used to fall over themselves to come to retailers and ask to do buy one, get one free offers or three for the price of two offers, because it was a good marketing tool for them? When I worked for Asda, we used to ask them whether we could have every-day low prices instead of all those offers, but it was the suppliers who were pushing buy one, get one free offers. The idea that supermarkets are forcing them is just guff.
That is interesting. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will have a range of suppliers who will appear in the press tomorrow to say that the groceries code adjudicator is not required. No doubt they will make their thoughts very clear through the Food and Drink Federation, which represents the sector. However, I will not hold my breath for that. I like shopping in
Asda, but I am not sure that it represents the sunlit uplands that the hon. Gentleman remembers from his happy times working there.
We want the Government to act swiftly on the grocery ombudsman. That will lead to less pressure on suppliers and an end to unfair competition, and greater price transparency in the supermarket sector. We want supermarkets to commit to clearer price labelling, particularly on those buy one, get one free promotions. If they do not do so voluntarily, Government should act. We call on supermarkets to commit to sending their in-date food waste to charities such as FareShare, which will ensure that it goes to a good home. We want supermarkets to publish the amount of food they waste, and if they do not do so the Government should take action in the next waste review. We want supermarkets to commit to recycling more of that food to hungry children and less to landfill.
We call on DEFRA Ministers to work with stakeholders to define food poverty, identify the extent and scale of the problem and commit to tackling it. We have heard about the extent of the problem today and the obscenity of food being wasted while people are going hungry in our towns and cities, but anecdotes are not evidence. We ignore the perfect storm of rising food prices, falling incomes and food poverty at our peril.
Let me start by welcoming the opportunity to debate this important matter. World food prices are volatile and the Government should do all they can to help families, but if we are to have a grown-up debate we need to start by acknowledging what the Government can and cannot do. Contrary to the rather Dickensian impression the hon. Lady seeks to convey, food price increases are not a direct result of the Government’s political composition, and a Government cannot be held responsible for what Mrs Moon cited: the abandonment of families by the main breadwinner, the misfortune of a house fire or domestic violence perpetrated in the home. Food prices are the product of many complicated and interrelated factors, many of which are globally driven.
In order to have a fully informed debate, I will turn first to the specific issue of the groceries code adjudicator, which this Government, unlike the previous one, are introducing, and put the current situation in context. No one underestimates the difficulties families face in balancing household budgets when bills are high. As a veteran of the weekly shop, I see at first hand the impact of food price rises, as I am sure many of us do. Let us set the record straight. Last summer food price inflation overtook general inflation, but by November the reverse was true. In the coalition Government’s first year in office, food prices increased by less than the average annual increase in Labour’s last five years. Between 2007 and 2008 food prices rose twice as fast as they did between 2010 and 2011. Although Mary Creagh has a new-found interest in food prices, which is to be welcomed, it comes a little late.
The right hon. Lady says that food prices are not rising as fast as they had been, but does she acknowledge that wages have not gone up over that period, which means that people are suffering huge food poverty?
I am challenging the hon. Member for Wakefield to consider the fact that during her party’s 13 years in power, which saw steep rises in food prices, it introduced neither a groceries code adjudicator nor the other measures called for in the motion. Despite claiming today that the adjudicator would be some sort of panacea, the hon. Lady seems to feel that doing nothing about this for 13 years is a credible basis on which to criticise us for not having completed the process in just over 18 months.
I must say that this is bizarre. My right hon. Friend says she is concerned about rising food prices, but she is agitating to bring in a groceries code adjudicator that, if it will have any influence at all, will only be able to put prices up further. The two things are completely contradictory.
If we thought that the groceries code adjudicator would put prices up, there would not be the current cross-party support across the House for creating it.
The important point is that we need a degree of humility and candour about the Labour party’s record. As has been noted, Labour has shown extraordinary candour in the wording of its own motion. We must be clear that the hon. Member for Wakefield is calling on the coalition Government to introduce the adjudicator early in the next Parliament. I am not sure whether she knows the outcome of the next election, but the motion clearly indicates that she has written off Labour’s prospects of forming the next Government—she is certainly not alone in that. It is always good to start a debate with an issue on which we can make common cause, but the good news for her is that we will not wait until the next Parliament to introduce the adjudicator.
The Secretary of State is keen to tie down the timing of the introduction of the grocery code adjudicator, so when will she commit to do so?
As I am sure Opposition Front Benchers are aware, the lead Department on the grocery code adjudicator, both for the Government and for the Opposition, is of course the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but we have been very clear as a Government that we are fully committed to introducing the adjudicator as soon as possible.
Free and fair competition is the key to a healthy market, and it is right that the adjudicator should make sure the market is working in the best long-term interest of consumers. In this Session, we published a draft Bill to allow pre-legislative scrutiny. It was a popular measure, welcomed on both sides of the House, and as the Leader of the House said on
So there is no delay, but it has to be done right.
It is important to bear it in mind that, overall, the Competition Commission found that retailers are providing a good deal for their customers, and they should not be prevented from securing the best deals and passing the benefits on to their customers, but, similarly, we are clear that they should be required to treat their suppliers lawfully and fairly.
During pre-legislative scrutiny, the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee suggested that third parties should be allowed to lodge complaints. Our position remains that it is more appropriate for complaints to be lodged directly or indirectly by suppliers, but we are open to considering further arguments on extending the range of those who can trigger an investigation. That is the benefit of pre-legislative scrutiny. We recognise that third parties, including trade associations, have a valuable role to play, so the adjudicator will be fully free to gather evidence from trade associations once an investigation has begun.
The draft Bill provides the adjudicator with the power to name and shame retailers that are in breach of the code, and we believe that, in a highly competitive market, retailers will not risk reputational damage from unacceptable behaviour towards suppliers. If negative publicity proves insufficient, however, the draft Bill contains a reserve power for the adjudicator to impose financial penalties, subject to an order made by the Business Secretary but without the need for primary legislation.
I hope the House agrees, therefore, that these measures represent significantly more progress than was made under the previous Government and should be generally welcomed.
It has been suggested, in particular during the intervention by Philip Davies, that the adjudicator would introduce inflation to the food market, but the Competition Commission itself, which is after all independent on the issue, made the situation quite clear, stating that
“if unchecked, these practices”— the practices that the Secretary of State and others have described—
“would ultimately have a detrimental effect on consumers.”
It is quite clear that they would have a detrimental effect on prices for consumers.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. The Competition Commission clearly keeps the practices of retailers under scrutiny and sees a benefit in independent adjudication of fairness in the supply chain.
I shall turn to other points in the motion. The hon. Member for Wakefield espouses the virtues of the Healthy Start programme, which this Government have continued, and no one will argue with the role of food banks, which are an excellent example of the big society. They are not new, as churches have been redistributing food in that way down the decades, and we are four-square behind organisations such as FareShare, which do excellent work in the field.
In making it easier for shoppers, this Government have wasted absolutely no time in working with the food industry to simplify food date labelling. Last autumn I made it clear that one date should appear on the label, so that there is no confusion between “use by”, “use before”, “display until” or “store until”. There should be one date: if the product is perishable, the label should state “use by”, for food safety; if it is not, the label should state “best before”. In that way, we can certainly help people to reduce the amount of food that goes to waste.
Let us get back to some facts. Retail food price inflation reached 6.9% in June last year and currently stands at 3.8%. In real terms, food prices have stayed at about the same level since the start of 2009, notwithstanding the fact that food price inflation has fallen below the general rate of inflation. I accept that we need to help those on the lowest incomes, who are spending more of their budgets on food.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the major contributory factor to food price inflation is energy and fuel price inflation? They are indelibly linked.
Shortly, my hon. Friend will hear me expand correctly on the analysis of what is driving food price inflation.
It is important to remember that in 2010 the average family spent 11.5% of its household budget on food. The figure is greater for low income families, at 15.8%, but it is coming down; the 2010 figures are 1% lower than two years previously. That is a very important fact—the trend is that household expenditure on food in the lowest income families is coming down.
The hon. Lady needs to understand the contributory factors. The depreciation of sterling makes imports of food in other currencies stronger than ours more expensive. It is important to read the figures in the context of exchange rates and the other factors that drive up inflation.
The Government are, of course, actively finding ways to help mitigate the rises. But the Government cannot do it all, and they should not pretend that they can. Since the removal of production linked support in 2005, crops and livestock are traded on a global market. It is those markets that dictate food prices. As has been pointed out, the key drivers of domestic retail food price inflation include world agricultural commodity prices.
I hate to have to tell Mary Creagh, but if she is to have this brief she needs to learn that the wheat price has not been stable; it has fluctuated in recent years from £60 a tonne to more than £200 a tonne. There are also oil prices and exchange rates. In 2008, although the price of wheat fell in dollar terms, it increased in sterling terms because of the relative weakness of sterling to the dollar. To understand the causes of food price inflation, one has to analyse correctly the underlying drivers.
World commodity prices are the key driver and we are working hard internationally to ensure the better functioning of commodity prices at the global level. That, in turn, will affect food prices at home. The depreciation of sterling has made dollar-denominated commodities more expensive. Furthermore, global weather extremes have caused shortages that drive prices up.
I assure the Secretary of State that the Opposition fully understand which things Governments can intervene on and which they cannot. What is she doing to help the poorest families in the country to make sure that they get enough food and do not have to rely on food banks? How many food banks would she regard as a measure of success, and what is she aiming to do by the end of her stay in office?
The hon. Lady clearly was not listening to what I said about the continuation of the Healthy Start campaign, for example. Of course, in any big society, there is no finite amount of contribution that each of us might make to the more vulnerable; there is no need to put a limit on it.
Will my right hon. Friend comment on the moves that the Government are making, such as freezing council tax and cutting fuel duty? That has made general inflation a much more manageable phenomenon for ordinary families.
That is a shame, Madam Deputy Speaker, because there is a long list of things relevant to household budgets; there was a wider definition of that earlier. Freezing council tax is but one example of what frees up the budget to buy more food.
Last year, the Government’s Foresight report on the future of food and farming concluded that Governments across the world must take action now to ensure that a rising global population can be fed. It is a chilling fact that in only 13 years there will be 1 billion more mouths to feed on this planet. Increasing demand for water, land and energy means that food security is one of the world’s greatest challenges. The report identified five challenges for all nations to act on: balancing future demand and supply; ensuring that there is adequate food price stability and protecting the most vulnerable from volatility; achieving global access to food and ending hunger; managing the contribution of the food system to mitigating climate change; and maintaining biodiversity in our ecosystems. To take on those challenges, we need international reform. To address global food security, we need an increase in agricultural productivity, which means a move away from subsidy. To address the risk of climate instability disrupting production patterns, we must have open world trading systems.
In June last year, G20 Agriculture Ministers met and agreed to the creation of an agricultural market information system, which aims to stabilise food price volatility through better transparency in the marketplace. In November, I attended the climate change conference and helped the South African Agriculture Minister to get agriculture included in the work stream for the next climate change convention. We are now preparing for Rio plus 20, where we will push for international policies to help the most vulnerable in our society. We will lobby for the sustainable intensification of agriculture, climate-smart agriculture and the reduction of post-harvest losses. The Afghan Minister whom I met in Berlin this weekend at green week said that the reduction of harvest losses would make one of the greatest contributions to combating famine.
The challenges present an opportunity for the UK, and we need to be the first out of the blocks and embrace it. British food producers must make the most of international markets. That is why I have announced that I will publish an action plan at the end of the month to help export the best of British food and drink across the world. It is through global trade that the UK can secure its future food supply and help keep food prices down. We already contribute to global food supply. We provide 2% of global wheat exports, 4% of global barley exports and 1% of global cereal exports. That demonstrates that the UK has a major role in food production. By expanding production and exports, we can contribute to the overall economic recovery.
The food and farming industry is a high performer with great potential. The food chain contributes £88 billion per annum to the economy, which is 7% of GDP. It is responsible for 3.7 million jobs. The Government are acting across the food chain to stimulate growth, facilitate international trade and drive fair competition, because a thriving and competitive economy, where our products are freely traded on an international market, will deliver resilient, stable and affordable food supplies to our consumers.
The Government are working with industry and environmental partners to see how we can reconcile our goals of improving environmental protection and increasing food production. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wakefield for welcoming the green food project. The Government are spending £400 million on food and farming research, which addresses productivity, environmental performance and resilience along the food chain.
Nobody is under any illusion about the pressures that high food prices put on all our constituents. However, it would be wrong to pretend that there is a “silver bullet” solution when there is not.
I am sure that the hon. Lady would accept that the responsibility for helping the most vulnerable people in our society to have more disposable income to provide food for their families goes beyond my Department. She must take account of other things such as our freezing council tax, cutting fuel duty, cutting income tax, taking 1.1 million low-paid people out of tax, increasing child tax credit, taking action on energy prices and helping with the cost of rail travel.
The groceries code adjudicator will not be a panacea in the face of rising food prices. The adjudicator has a role to play in delivering a robust check on fairness between supplier and retailer; that is why we are introducing it. However, limiting food price inflation rests on multiple factors, from energy to exchange rates, and not least the core issue of supply and demand. The Government are not only alert to those factors but actively finding opportunities to influence them. We are working internationally to ensure that a growing population can be fed, we are using the challenges of food production to kick-start growth and competitiveness here in the UK, and through the green food project we are addressing the tensions inherent in growing more food at less cost to the environment.
The steps we are taking will produce the market conditions required to deliver good quality, affordable food for households throughout the UK. This debate is important because it is about the household budget and the cost of living. The Government have not sat idly by. We are directly helping in all kinds of ways—the freezing of council tax, the cutting of fuel duty, and so on. Those are all measures that Labour refused to take when it was in power, despite running up the biggest peacetime deficit in our country’s history. This is a Government who are on the side of hard-pressed families, this is a Department that is on the side of British farmers and food producers, and this is an issue on which Labour has no credibility and no alternative. I urge the House to reject the motion.
Listening to the Secretary of State’s final comments, I thought for a moment that I had stumbled into some sort of parallel universe, because I did not recognise any of her claims about what the Government are doing. She talked about the freeze in council tax. First, some of the families we are talking about are so poor that they do not pay council tax. Secondly, in Stoke-on-Trent, as in other areas, the council has been so hammered by the cuts in support from national Government to local government that it cannot accept the bribe of a 2% freeze and will have to make increases to try to get back some of the money that has been ripped away from it.
I welcome this debate because it provides the other side of the “heat or eat” coin. We recently discussed in this House the situation whereby people have to make the choice between heating their home and having food to eat. Sadly, many people do not have that choice because they cannot afford to heat their homes or to eat properly. Many families cannot afford to put proper food in their stomachs, let alone heat their homes.
The problem is going to get worse. To be fair to the Secretary of State, she touched on this area, to a small extent. Back in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, we had cheap oil and we encouraged farmers, not only in this country but globally, to turn that oil into food by using machinery—whether milking pumps, tractors or heated greenhouses—to produce more food. The UK imports a huge amount of food—even things that we grow well in this country, such as tomatoes. We seem to have a fascination with buying imported tomatoes even during our tomato season. On imported foodstuffs, we bring into this country a large amount of soy to feed our cattle because of the ever-increasing demand for more milk production. As a result, oil prices are rising and will continue to rise further. As the years go by, the built-in link between the price of oil and the price of food means that the food prices that we have been used to will continue to increase as the price of oil goes up.
We need to wean our farmers off oil. Back in the ’70s, companies decided to produce ever better strains of seeds. That was linked to the oil industry, because in order to grow those better strains, the farmers needed fertilisers linked to oil. As the weeks, months and years stretch out ahead of us, if we cannot reduce the constant link with oil, we will face an inexorable increase in the cost of food. We need to act now, and the Government need to act now, to start to break that cycle.
Food banks such as that at St Clare’s, Meir Park, in my constituency are doing fantastic work and helping the vulnerable in our society, and they have started only in the past year. In the 13 years of the Labour Government, for which the Secretary of State tried to berate us, they were not needed. I would like to see a country in which there are no food banks, of course—everybody would—but while we have the need for them, we must have them.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the Trussell Trust estimates that 60,000 people got food from food banks last year, and that 100,000 will this year? It estimates that by 2015, half a million people will depend on them.
Absolutely, my hon. Friend is correct: that is the scale of the problem that we face. By 2014-15 half a million people will be looking to food banks, so how many people will by 2020, and how many by 2025, if action is not taken soon?
People do not want to go to food banks. They do not think on a Saturday afternoon, “Oh, I know, let’s pop to the food bank.” They do it because they have no other choice. They are people with pride and self-esteem, but they think, “Well, hang on, it’s that or starve.” What a contradiction it is that at the same time we are throwing away 7.2 million tonnes of food every year. It is unbelievable that we are wasting food on such a level. It is appalling, and a national disgrace.
Why is that happening? Philip Davies rallied to the defence of the supermarket industry. I will make further points about that industry in a moment, but when it has food promotions such as two for one or three for one, it causes problems for families at the poorest end of the scale, who do not have a freezer and cannot store so much food. However, most of the problem comes from people such as—dare I say it?—us in the House. Mea culpa: at the end of Christmas and its excesses, we look at our own fridge or freezer and see that it is still full of food that was not needed. That food ends up going in the bin, at the same time as people—[Interruption.] Well, actually, I do not throw food away, but there are people who do.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman asks that question. I would like the goods on the shelves to be at a fair price so that families can afford to buy one of something and do not have to go for a two-for-one offer to get the best value. I know that he is perhaps still an unpaid spokesperson for a supermarket.
There is a problem with the desire for perfect food, too. Our farmers are having to waste a lot of food because it does not meet some of the supermarkets’ requirements for perfect food.
I will not, because I have less than two minutes to go. If there is time at the end of my speech I will allow the hon. Lady to intervene.
My final point is about the groceries code adjudicator. We need somebody who holds the supermarkets to account, because whether we are talking about the past two years, the previous 13 years—as the Secretary of State tries to shift the blame on to our side—or the past 20, 25 or 30 years, the supermarkets have been making money left, right and centre, hand over fist, but at the same time our farmers have told us that they are struggling. The number of farmers now is a fraction of what it was 20 or 30 years ago, and customers and consumers—our constituents—are suffering. We need the adjudicator. If the Secretary of State has a problem with the need for an adjudicator, the answer is quite simple: if the adjudicator is appointed and does not have any work to do, perhaps the post will have been a success because the supermarkets have realised that the game is up.
This debate is not about those of us who are in the comfortable position of being able to go out and buy what we want in the supermarket. It is about the poorest in our society, who may not have freezers and fridges, and cannot buy in bulk, or buy food when it is on offer. They are the ones who work and live from week to week—sometimes from day to day. The House and the Secretary of State need to provide a positive steer, to ensure that the most vulnerable families are looked after, helped and supported by all the machinery of government.
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.
My hon. Friend will know that the vast majority of suppliers to supermarkets are, by definition, huge organisations—multinational companies such as Mars, Coca-Cola, and Proctor and Gamble. Does she think that they need the protection of a grocery ombudsman, or does she agree that they are more than big enough to look after themselves?
I am so fond of my hon. Friend that I have great difficulty in saying that I must draw his attention to the remarks I have just made. His big organisation—Asda—is revered in north Yorkshire because it stemmed from Associated Dairies, which not only set the price but provided a market for local milk suppliers. Individual growers need protection, because they are unable to speak for themselves. We all have big constituencies and may not always be aware of such individuals. I hesitate to say whether big companies are “good guys” or “bad guys”, but Asda and Morrisons source a lot of their food locally—almost 80% or 90%. We need to protect the small individual growers.
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee believes that two of its conclusions could have an impact if the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs can persuade the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to amend the draft Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill. First, the ability of suppliers to make anonymous complaints is fundamental to the success of the groceries code adjudicator. Secondly, the adjudicator should have the power to launch investigations. We are all agreed that he should have the power to fine, but he should also have the power to launch investigations.
I have just established a not-for-profit company called Ugly Food. The strapline is “Tasty but imperfect, just like you”. There is a phenomenal number of small suppliers who have food rejected because their produce is not perfect. We should look to create a market for that food, so that we do not waste it.
The House will draw its own conclusions about my hon. Friend’s self-advertising.
I understand that the powers of the Competition Commission are based on the powers of the Commission in Brussels. The EU directorate general for competition has the power to swoop when it believes an investigation should take place. I urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to make the same plea to the Business, Innovation and Skills Secretary to adopt those two recommendations—and, indeed, all the Committee’s recommendations.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be aware of the Committee’s work on food security. I hope she will remove any inconsistencies between trying to supply a secure strand of food and sustainable food production. There is an inconsistency at the heart of the Government on that. She will be involved in discussions on common agricultural reform in Brussels. Greening the common agricultural policy could take productive land out of production. It could also be hugely expensive and involve the introduction of more complex regulations, which we should be aiming to simplify.
My hon. Friend will know that I acknowledged that problem when I gave evidence to her Committee last week, and that we will try to ameliorate the Commission’s proposals in that regard.
I am most grateful for my right hon. Friend’s clarification.
In conclusion, we should say, “Keep it simple.” With all the regulations coming forward, whether to do with the adjudicator or not, the powers should be clear and allow individual growers, under a cloak of anonymity, to raise such issues, either directly or through a third party. I welcome this debate, although I regret that many of the issues that I have raised are not covered by the motion. However, we can have a positive debate today and see an early completion of the adjudicator code, with an early introduction of the adjudicator in the next Session.
It is a pleasure to follow Miss McIntosh, who, like me, represents a large rural constituency where farming is an important industry. I visit farms and talk to farmers regularly, and the one question they ask me to raise in Parliament is, “When are we going to get the supermarkets ombudsman?” I was not here in the previous Parliament. I cannot answer questions about why successive Governments have not introduced a supermarkets ombudsman. However, Members who were here tell me that the issue of a groceries code adjudicator has a long and not very productive history.
Members have championed the cause in opposition, but have proven remarkably slow to put anything into action when in government. In opposition, the Tories announced that they would create the new body through a levy on retailers. Two years ago this month, in January 2010, the then shadow Environment Secretary, Nick Herbert, said that
“further consultation is not the decisive action that consumers or the industry need…Conservatives are clear: we would establish a supermarket ombudsman to enforce the grocery supply code as a dedicated unit in the Office of Fair Trading to ensure a fair deal for producers and safeguard the consumer interest.”
However, we are two years into this Government, and it appears that they are not quite so decisive now. Tim Farron, who was then the Liberal Democrat environment, food and rural affairs spokesman, also told us in January 2010:
“For years, Labour and the Tories have twiddled their thumbs while huge supermarkets have pushed thousands of farmers to the brink. Their response has been totally inadequate”.
However, the Lib Dems are part of this Government, yet we are seeing no sign of decisive action.
Where we have seen consistent, strong and decisive action is from the big four supermarkets. They have always offered strong and sustained resistance to the establishment of a supermarket ombudsman. Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons have fought a long, consistent and, it now appears, successful campaign of opposition and delay. However, in the meantime, the farming industry and the consumer continue to wait. Tom MacMillan of the Food Ethics Council tells us:
“The government must now ensure that it listens to small producers as well as big business. A strong supermarket ombudsman, invested with real power, would have the authority to ensure fair prices from the farm gate to the checkout”— the very point that the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton made. He continues:
“It would protect the livelihoods of farmers across the UK and give consumers better access to fresh, healthy food.”
The National Farmers Union tells us that dairy producers have been particularly squeezed, with dairy farmers going out of business every day. That is exactly what I am seeing in my constituency, where the number of dairy farmers has been reduced significantly, as they either move into other forms of farming or, more often, leave the industry altogether. War on Want believes that a supermarket ombudsman would support farmers here at home and help poorly paid workers in the developing world. Only the British Retail Consortium, speaking for the supermarkets, believes that a supermarkets ombudsman is a costly and unnecessary new bureaucracy that would not benefit suppliers or consumers. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Oh sorry, only the British Retail Consortium plus one or two Government Members.
The farmers in my constituency, and in many others across the country, are looking for decisive action from the Government on this matter. How many more of them need to go out of business before the Government get around to taking action? Farmers and consumers need a groceries code adjudicator with real powers who can impose real fines of a magnitude that will change the behaviour of food retailers, and not just be seen as an occupational hazard and a risk worth taking. That is the way to bring in fairness across the food chain. It really does not matter whether we call the body a groceries code adjudicator, a supermarkets ombudsman or Oftrolley; what matters is that we get such a body now.
I must now declare an interest in the organisation called Ugly Food that I have established. I believe that it is open to all small producers to market their foods with new branding and a new logo.
Perhaps I am looking at these matters non-politically, and perhaps I am looking too far into the future, but I think that we have a real problem. We talk about cheap food, but we are not always going to be able to deliver cheap food. We will have been deluding our constituents by suggesting that it will be available in the longer term, unless someone comes up with the answers to climate change, increased calorific intake and population growth. If we are to be responsible and live in the real world, we must try to deliver a system in which the cost of feeding one’s family healthily and effectively does not go up in price, but that is fundamentally different from talking about cheap food.
The food system in this country has been distorted by the very cheapness of the products. Food here is cheaper than in any other country in Europe and, as a result, we have seen a much steeper price hike in recent years than the rest of Europe. That price hike has been compounded by two fundamental aspects of our food chain. We import much more than any other OECD country, and we eat much more processed food, which is highly energy intensive and labour intensive. A further anomaly is that, although this country’s supply chain is supremely efficient, it is not very resilient. As a result, we face greater price fluctuations and volatility when shocks to the system occur.
I draw Members’ attention to my declaration of interest. My hon. Friend is right to say that food prices will continue to rise, and that that will be a problem. Is it not the case, however, that one way of tackling that would be to tackle food waste? Should we not also examine the new technology that could really move agriculture forward, not only in the UK but around the world?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. It is pretty frightening that wheat yields in this country have not increased at all over the past 20 years. Also, because food has been so cheap in this country, we have not valued it. As a result, there is a huge amount of waste in the system.
It is interesting that the Opposition have chosen this subject for debate, because you left this country very vulnerable—
Order. That is the second time the hon. Lady has done this. She is not to refer to the Chair in that way. I have not done anything. She should refer to “the hon. Lady”. I certainly have nothing to do with fruit of any kind.
I do apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker.
To address the bigger problem of food insecurity, we should look to the energy model. This Government’s strategy on energy insecurity aims to manage a valuable resource, to address the waste in the system and to build greater UK resilience to international price fluctuations. With some tweaks, several of those policy mechanisms could and should be adopted for food. Security of supply is an example. The previous Government cannot claim much credit in that area. Imports of food increased by 52% under the previous Government and agricultural land was diverted away from production. Thank goodness, today we have Ministers who understand the issues of production.
To build greater security of supply, domestic production must, in my view, increase. We must build a hedging mechanism against global volatility and realise not only that food imports will become more expensive but that the level of imports, with a weak pound, is having a negative impact on our balance of payments and placing an inflationary pressure on benefits and entitlements.
We must address food waste with a similar tenacity to that with which we are addressing energy waste through the green deal. We need to reverse the indulgent years that deskilled the consumer in food preparation and supported profligacy in the supply chain. Customers—we, the consumers—are often accused of being responsible for such waste, but I disagree. The system is designed to create waste and the consumer is merely responding to how the supermarkets and other retailers sell their products. The waste in procurement is terrifying and I hope that the grocery code of practice will ensure that we reduce some of it. As I have mentioned before, my campaign through Ugly Food is one way of addressing some of the waste embedded in our system.
Waste is also embedded in the design of consumer-facing products. Robert Flello talked about the packaging and presentation of food. People blame the customer, but is it their fault? Servings of food are often too big and processed foods are heavily advertised. Although the Government have made a great deal of progress on display dates, safety dates mislead the consumer about the longevity of products. Point-of-sale displays draw consumers to larger packages rather than smaller units of food and BOGOFs—buy one, get one free offers—neither help single item shoppers nor reduce the bills for family shoppers.
I believe that EU regulations are changing and that country of origin labelling will have to be much clearer, but we certainly have an issue with knowing and understanding exactly where food comes from and, when it comes to meat, where the animal was born rather than where it was reared.
Our system is designed around cheap disposable food and the UK, more than any other country other than the US, must embark on a culture change. We should re-engineer our food system to place value on food and to stop regarding it as disposable. That is why I am calling for a food security obligation—similar to the energy company obligation—for supermarkets and large food producers so that they record and reduce waste through their procurement process and commit to designing their products with the aim of delivering real value for money for the consumer, which is quite different from cheap food.
Both 2008 and 2011 were shocks to the system, but the price rises we have experienced will be the norm in the future. We had better get used to it. Food will not be cheap, but with the right policies in place, feeding our families need not be more expensive.
I pay tribute to the excellent work done by my hon. Friend Albert Owen through his private Member’s Bill, the Grocery Market Ombudsman Bill, which, as many Members will know, had a long history spanning several years. He said—this is the most important thing to remember about the Bill—that it was about fairness to all those involved, whether they were farmers, small producers, local suppliers, suppliers from developing countries, small shops, convenience stores, supermarkets or, most importantly, consumers.
The Bill led to the proposal for a supermarket ombudsman or groceries adjudicator being in all three parties’ manifestos for the 2010 election, but what has happened since then? Gavin Williamson secured an Adjournment debate on the groceries code adjudicator last April, and in May we had the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills document, “The Government’s policy for a Groceries Code Adjudicator”, but it is now January 2012 and we do not seem to be any further on.
I should like to ask the Secretary of State why we are waiting so long for the Bill and when we are going to see it. Is it going to contain the proper sanctions that we all want to see—sanctions that will actually make a difference and make people change their behaviour? Will the adjudicator be able to carry out proactive investigations? One thing is for certain: if, as Laura Sandys has explained, we need to increase food production, farmers are not going to be able to do that if they are being squeezed on prices. Many Members have cited the dairy industry as an obvious example. If the price of milk is squeezed, people inevitably go out of business and we produce less, which means we end up importing even such things as milk, which one would think we could produce very easily in our climate.
Here we are being offered again this painless panacea in which everyone benefits from an ombudsman. Can the hon. Lady explain how getting the supermarket to pay more to the supplier and the farmer, fining it more and getting it to pay for the ombudsman will result in reduced costs for the customer? I am absolutely fascinated to hear how that will work.
This is about fairness. It is about paying a fair price to farmers for what they produce, having a fair price for consumers, and stopping sharp practices. It is about protecting the good businesses—the good guys if you like—and creating a level playing field, which is extremely important.
Let me address what happens to people when they go into supermarkets, particularly when they buy fruit and vegetables. We should not forget that there has been a dramatic drop of 30% in fruit and vegetable purchasing by the poorest families, so that the poorest children now get only 2.7 of the five portions of fruit and veg they should have each day. Is it small wonder that when people go into supermarkets they are quite worried about what will end up on their bill at the till, given that they are absolutely dazed by the displays of fruit and veg and the ways of pricing them? Sometimes they are priced by the item, sometimes by the packet—in fours, eights or tens—and sometimes by weight. For example, there are many varieties of tomato, from cherry tomatoes to beef tomatoes, and there is a range of different pricing mechanisms, which is extremely confusing. There should be a very simple formula that allows us all to compare prices easily, because it is very difficult with loose items such as fruit and veg, which can be packed in so many different ways, to work out exactly what one is being charged. Last September there was a bumper crop because of that fabulous spring we had last April, but did we see prices drop? No. Could we have told if they had dropped? No, because unlike at the petrol pump where we can all see the sign displayed very clearly and can tell when prices go up, one cannot see when prices for fruit and veg go up—it is easy to disguise and to pull a fast one on the consumer. Those issues need to be addressed.
As my hon. Friend Julie Hilling has explained, the number of people needing help from food banks is increasing and it is set to increase further. Why? Because some of this Government’s taxation policies are hitting the poorest hardest and squeezing their income. For example, some of the changes being introduced mean that those on low wages who are trying to do the right thing and go out to work are going to find that their tax credits will be cut. They would like to top up with more work hours, but those hours simply are not available. Sometimes that is because supermarkets prefer to have people on low hours; it gives them more flexibility for the Saturday and Sunday shifts that they want worked.
What about the cuts in housing benefit? They are going to leave many families who currently receive the amount they need to pay their rent having to use what should be food money to pay the rent. That is why we will see dramatic drops in the amount that people can pay for their food. There will also be more and more families relying on food banks. What about the cuts in winter fuel allowance? They will leave some of our pensioners with less money to spend on food.
Does the hon. Lady accept that obesity is increasing, particularly among young people and people from poor backgrounds? Despite the efforts of the previous Government and this Government, that does not show much sign of changing. Does she accept that, in reality, the issue is about a lot more than just the current Government’s tax system? It is much wider and much more complex than she portrays it as being.
Obesity may very well be on the increase because unhealthier foods are the only type that some families can afford; they cannot afford the healthier alternatives. That is a real issue. People look at the different pricing mechanisms and go for what can fill them up. That is the type of food that they are having to rely on now. They do not have the luxury of choice.
Let me move on from pricing in supermarkets and our adjudicators Bill to my worry about families who cannot afford something very basic: enough food to eat. That is very serious. It is nothing to be proud of that we need to have food banks; that is something that we do not want to see. We do not want anybody to have to rely on charity for something that every family should be able to afford. We want proper policies that will put money in the pockets of the people who need to spend it on food. No one in this country—one of the richest countries in the world—should have to look to charity for food. We need to make absolutely certain that the policies put in place deliver fair prices for consumers and farmers, and that the distribution of income levels is fair, so that those who have the least can make the purchases that they need to make to feed their family. It is an absolute disgrace to rely on food banks to do something that everyone should be able to afford to do: feed their family.
Thank you for this opportunity to speak on food poverty, Madam Deputy Speaker. Members have mentioned with concern a lack of knowledge among many people today about what constitutes a healthy diet, and a lack of the skills to create healthy meals. I share those concerns, but in the time that I have, I would like to concentrate on another skill that is less prevalent today than it was just one or two generations ago: the skill to grow and produce at least some of our own food. That is something that my grandparents did, and not just as a hobby; it gave them a vital supplement to their daily diet. I remember enjoying that whole-family activity on many summer evenings.
I want to concentrate on some of the excellent initiatives in my constituency devoted to sharing know-how in this sphere. Interestingly, while some groups are decades old, including the Middlewich and District Show Society, the Congleton and District Horticultural Society, and the Alsager Gardens Association, others have been set up in the past two to three years, with immense support. They include the Sandbach Allotment Society, Home Grown in Holmes Chapel, and the Congleton Sustainability Group.
People on low incomes have the lowest intakes of fruit and veg, and are therefore far more likely to suffer from diet-related diseases such as cancer, diabetes, obesity and coronary heart disease, which is why the initiatives that I am talking about could be disproportionately valuable to them. The ability to develop and share skills, and more opportunities for people to grow their own—whether in their garden, a neighbour’s garden, or on community land—are greatly needed. That need will increase, given that, as the chief scientific adviser to the Government has said, by 2030 we will need to produce 50% more food, and given that the European Commission’s current proposals could mean taking 7% of land out of production, much to the consternation of farmers in my constituency.
Turning back to the local, let me describe some of the benefits that the Middlewich annual show promotes. There were 400 entries last year across the many categories, including cookery, flowers and vegetables. John Carver, the chairman, grows leeks, onions, carrots, potatoes, peas and broad beans in his garden. I can testify, having visited, that it is as attractive as any garden with flowers in it. He says he gardens as people did 30 years ago, and has to buy hardly any veg for his family. He has carrots in storage, and freezes beans and peas. He advises people to grow their own
“as they are far better since they have not lost any of their ‘goodness’”.
At the last Middlewich show, it was a real pleasure to see the civic hall crowded out. Some of the entrants were very young, and some of the veg were of phenomenal size; several leeks, when stood on end for a photograph with me, were bigger than me.
That will not come as a surprise to some Members. We should promote the idea of making greater use of gardens. Indeed, many elderly people might appreciate having veg tended in their gardens in exchange for some of the produce.
The Sandbach Allotment Society has been going for just two years. Forty people came to the first meeting, and 120 to the second. It aims to encourage growing your own, and has found temporary accommodation on a 1.2 acre site belonging to a local farmer. That will provide 34 half-plots, each of which will provide a significant amount of vegetables for a family, at a fraction of the cost of buying them. It says that growing your own is not an old man’s domain; it is for families. It brings families and communities together. I know how popular it is: there is a 100-person waiting list for further allotments that it hopes to obtain.
Home Grown in Holmes Chapel is an innovative community action group that encourages residents of Holmes Chapel and neighbouring communities to buy locally produced food, shop in local shops, and work together to grow their own fruit and veg. It has been lent two previously untended plots of land in the village centre, one by the carpet shop and one by the health centre. The organisers say that, despite rain showers, on a blustery May day, nearly 40 volunteers turned up to the group’s first dig-in. Volunteers planted a variety of fruit and veg—strawberries, lettuces, cabbages, sugar-snap peas, and radishes donated by the volunteers, whose ages ranged from just 18 months to 75 years. Lissy Berry, aged eight, said to her mum:
“This is hard work, but I’m really enjoying it—it is so worthwhile”,
and other volunteers agreed. Another said:
“I have really enjoyed myself—it is a wonderful feeling to have achieved so much”.
I went to the group’s first harvest in October, and I can testify to the tastiness of the lettuce.
The group says:
“We want people to think about the way we live our lives…We are not trying to feed Holmes Chapel—just show what is possible with a little space, sunshine, water and love! It is great to eat vegetables that have been grown for taste, not for shelf-life, and it is great to be able to do so without driving the car anywhere or eating produce that has been flown half way around the world…We are growing community fruit and vegetables for the community to use!”
The group has great plans: it is starting to talk to the parish council and Cheshire East council about planting fruit trees around the village; holding a “shop local” week; and encouraging residents who have a bit of spare community land near their house to set up a community veg plot. It is working with Holmes Chapel primary school; I was pleased to see recently planted herbs and veg there, and there are plans for more vegetable beds. It wants to work with retirement and nursing homes in the village, and to see if it can get community groups working together to grow fruit and veg in those places. It says:
“that is enough to keep us busy for some time to come!”
Other initiatives in the constituency seek to reduce waste. Ray Brown, a farmer, proposes to convert an old Ministry of Defence fuel base into an anaerobic digester, with the support of Cheshire East council. It is anticipated that it will be able to take all the food waste from the entire population of Cheshire East, which covers not just my constituency but several others. That will raise Cheshire East’s recycling rates to a remarkable potential 90%. The scheme will also generate electricity and feed it into the grid. As I hope the Government will recognise, that should negate the need for an incinerator just 15 minutes away in Middlewich.
On waste, I cannot omit to mention the tremendous work done by the Congleton Sustainability Group, which produced the now-famous Congleton apple juice that many Members tried here recently. In 2010, it used 3.5 tonnes of apples that would otherwise have gone to waste, and its target for 2011 was 5 tonnes.
Those are just a few initiatives, but there are many more that I could have described. If we are to alleviate food poverty, it is important to promote, share and develop skills at all levels of food production. It could take us a considerable way towards tackling problems in the years and decades to come.
I congratulate my Front-Bench colleagues on securing today’s debate on this relevant and topical issue. I wish to use this opportunity to highlight the national scandal of rising poverty.
Some people find it hard to believe that food poverty really exists in this country. Last year, I was aghast to hear the former Conservative MP, Edwina Currie, say on BBC radio that she had “great difficulty” believing that people in Britain went without food. Only last week, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said that people are not suffering as a result of benefit changes. Perhaps they have not seen the very real and tragic situation that thousands of families and pensioners face this winter, and perhaps they have not been affected by the 4% rise in food prices over the past 12 months. However, the thousands who are forced to queue for handouts, in lines that stretch through church halls and community centres across our country, certainly are, and they include people who struggle to balance housing costs and rising energy bills, and the mums and dads who go hungry so that their children do not have to. With rising prices, higher living costs and falling wages, it is becoming more difficult for people to make ends meet. The consumer prices index shows that the average household spends 12% of their income on food, meaning that a couple with two young children spend more than £5,000 a year on food. In addition, according to the OECD figures that we have discussed a great deal this afternoon, 4% food inflation has added an extra £233 to that bill over the past year alone.
It is even harder for lower-income households to cope. DEFRA’s own statistics show that they have to spend 15.8% of their income on food—nearly 3% more than the average household. While jobseeker’s allowance for a single adult is £67.50, it is just not possible to eat healthily on £8 a week or just over £1 a day. Last May, I did the “Live Below the Line” challenge, which was organised to raise money for charities in Africa, and I lived on £1 a day for food and drink for five days. I did not have enough protein, and I got headaches. I could afford just one of the five recommended pieces of fruit and veg a day. I endured that for just five days: there are over 4,000 people in my constituency for whom that is a reality 365 days a year.
It is therefore not surprising that fruit and vegetable consumption in poorer families fell by 30% last year. It is even harder to buy food when the support to which someone is entitled to is not paid on time, as I found out when I visited a Trussell Trust food bank in my constituency just before Christmas. I met a man who had walked in the freezing rain to get to the food bank. The week before, he had been in hospital recovering from heart surgery. When he came out of hospital, he was told that he would have to wait a number of weeks for his benefit payments to be reinstated. He was hungry. His district nurse had given him a food voucher, but he could not afford the bus or a taxi. He had to walk more than four miles. He was a desperate man.
That is one of three food banks operating across Liverpool. We have five in total across Merseyside providing desperately needed assistance to people who cannot afford to buy food. The figures show that the largest proportion of people seeking emergency assistance—just under 40%—do so because of delays in receiving benefit payments. With the Chancellor’s austerity programme sucking growth out of our economy and pushing up inflation and employment, it is clear that, following reductions, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions cannot cope with the demands placed on them. That is set to get worse, as it is estimated that over the next three years HMRC will lose 10,000 more staff, and DWP is set to lose 17,000 staff.
In my constituency in the past nine months, 312 people were issued with food vouchers for themselves and their families, which entitled them to at least three visits to the food bank, but the food bank would never turn them away if they needed anything more. That situation is not unique to Liverpool. There has been a huge growth in food banks across the country, with one opening every week last year. Contrary to what the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs believes, I do not think that that is something to celebrate. As my hon. Friend Mary Creagh highlighted, according to the Trussell Trust, the fantastic charity that runs 163 food banks across the UK, in the past 12 months, 60,000 people received help from food banks, including 20,000 children. It predicts that 130,000 people will need help this year.
My hon. Friend Julie Hilling highlighted the fact that those figures are set to rise to 500,000 by 2015. The figures are staggering and awful but, faced with that crisis, the Government have pursued out-of-touch policies that are making the situation worse, not better. They are making it harder for families and pensioners to make ends meet and to cope with the rising cost of living. Tax rises and spending cuts that go too far and too fast are choking off economic recovery, pushing up prices and leading to soaring unemployment.
That reckless plan has backfired on the deficit too, with more people out of work and claiming benefit rather than paying taxes, meaning that the Government will not balance the books by 2015 as they promised. It is time to change course and get our economy growing to create more jobs. DEFRA should play its part by putting the food industry—the largest manufacturing sector in the UK—at the heart of the economic recovery and getting a fair deal for British farmers and food manufacturers. We want a competitive supply chain for growers, processors and retailers.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was pressed earlier about when the groceries code adjudicator will be introduced, but we did not receive clarification. We are concerned that the office will not be up and running until at least 2014-15. As price rises are 0.7% above the EU average at 4%, we need action now, and we also need to act to protect consumers from vested interests. The grocery market is dominated by four big supermarkets, which account for about 85% of the total market. Nine out of 10 people are concerned about rising food prices, and over half of them are comparing prices more when shopping for food. However, only 53% of people think that it is easy to work out which product is better value for money using the price information available on labels. Consumers need transparent pricing from the major retailers to make it easier to compare goods so that they can make informed choices. Under Labour proposals, retailers would provide clearer unit pricing for goods, with information that is easier to read, and with unit prices for promotional offers.
Today’s motion sets out to put right the failed approach of this Government, who are out of touch with families and pensioners facing the squeeze from rising living costs. The approach set out by Labour in the motion would help the thousands of men, women and children who cannot afford to eat properly this winter, introducing measures to get our economy moving and securing a fair deal for British farmers and consumers. Unlike the Secretary of State, I do not welcome the escalation in the number of food banks: there are already three too many in Liverpool, and 163 too many across the UK. It is a tragic and terrifying indictment that we have food poverty in 21st-century Britain, one of the richest nations in the world, and that food poverty is rising. The Government must do anything and everything to reverse the situation in which over 100,000 people this year cannot afford to buy food to eat. I urge everyone to vote for the motion.
The hon. Gentleman has only just arrived in the Chamber, so I advise him not to start.
I welcome the fact that the Opposition have introduced this important debate, the full title of which is, “Rising Food Prices and Food Poverty”. That is appropriate, although I notice that the motion is rather narrow, and refers primarily to the groceries code adjudicator. Following my intervention on Mary Creagh, I urge Huw Irranca-Davies, when he replies to the debate, to ensure that the Opposition reflect carefully on the drafting error in the motion, which sends an unhelpful message to those of us who believe that the primary message of today’s debate concerns the speed of the introduction of the groceries code adjudicator. I urge him to withdraw the motion when he has an opportunity to do so. It is vital that we send a strong, clear message through our debate.
I acknowledge the point that many Members have made about the impact of food poverty and the fact that people have to choose between paying their rent and eating, or between paying their heating bill and eating. Nowhere does that apply more than in my constituency, which has been at the bottom of the earnings league table for years, pretty much since records began. Tragically and regrettably, a food bank is required in Penzance, which is strictly managed by an excellent team of volunteers led by David Mann, Brenda Fox and others, who do very good work. They consider it a matter of enormous regret that such things are needed.
I welcome other topics raised by the hon. Member for Wakefield, including the importance of maintaining regulation by the Gangmasters Licensing Authority and ensuring that agricultural workers are properly remunerated for their work. She expressed dismay at the failure to introduce the grocery code adjudicator. I remind her of the dismay that many of us felt at the failure of the previous Government to act in this area. However, those who have followed the debate over many years recognise that this is a matter on which there is cross-party consensus.
Albert Owen, who was mentioned earlier, the former Member for Stroud, David Drew, who did some excellent work in this area, Daniel Kawczynski, Mr Hayes, who is the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning—Members across all parties—have recognised that the abuse of power by the supermarkets is unacceptable.
In its 2008 report the Competition Commission recognised that there was a climate of fear in the supply chain. That had been identified by the Office of Fair Trading report in 2004, when it reviewed the failure of the then supermarket code of practice and the urgent need for a grocery supply code of practice. As a result of the Competition Commission’s work, that has been in place since February 2010, but it is a little like a game of rugby without a referee. It is all very well having the rules in place, but if there is no one to enforce them, we do not know that rampant abuses of power are not occurring within the supermarket sector.
I declare an involvement as the chair of the Grocery Market Action Group, which includes representatives from the National Farmers Union, Friends of the Earth, the Association of Convenience Stores, the British Brands Group and other organisations. Since 2006 we have been providing evidence to the Competition Commission and pushing for an adjudicator. We have made the point that we need a supermarket watchdog that has proactive powers, can take information anonymously, can receive third-party and trade association evidence, and follow that through to an inquiry. Of course it is important that an adjudicator should not be able to go on fishing expeditions and waste the time and resources of supermarkets and their suppliers in undertaking pointless inquiries. That will sort itself out over time.
I know that my hon. Friend has been looking into the matter for some years. What does he consider to be the initial priorities of the adjudicator, once that office is established?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The objectives in the draft Bill are helpful. However, the importance of speed should be emphasised. Most of the framework is in the Bill, and I would be prepared to have it put in place early, even if we failed to achieve some of the elements that I have spoken about—proactivity, anonymity, third party referral to the adjudicator, which is important, and the power to fine.
The Bill may well enable the Secretary of State to introduce regulations allowing the adjudicator to fine supermarkets that fall below the standards set in the Bill. To bring about reputational damage, which is the only way in which supermarkets will be made to change their practice, that additional power will be needed. It is important to recognise that not all the supermarkets and those who will be brought under the code object to the proposal. Supermarkets have been achieving record profits in the deepest recession, so to argue that they cannot afford it is rubbish.
I say to the hon. Member for Ogmore that speed is of the essence. The motion should be withdrawn in order that we send a strong message to the outside world.
As we have heard, people in the UK are facing the biggest squeeze in living standards since the war. They are being hit on all sides. They are losing their jobs or their overtime or having their pay frozen. If they are self-employed, they are struggling to earn the sort of money that they used to earn. They are being hit by cuts to public services, rising fuel bills, rising rents, cuts to housing benefits, cuts to tax credits, and as we have heard today, they are being hit by rising food bills too. All those things add up and have a devastating impact on household finances.
Food prices in the UK have been rising at well over twice the rate of the incomes of the poorest. Over the past five years, food prices have gone up by 32%, rising at well over twice the rate of the national minimum wage and twice the rate of jobseeker’s allowance. Around one in every 16 people have been forced to skip meals so that the rest of their family can eat. In Bristol that represents 26,500 people in the city having to go hungry because of financial hardship. Eight hundred people in Bristol have used a food bank in the past year. Oxfam South West has reported an increase in demand on its food banks, with some reporting a 100% increase on the previous year’s total of applications for help. As we have heard, the Trussell Trust estimates that the number of people using food banks could increase from 100,000 this year to up to 500,000 by the end of this Parliament.
I congratulate the charities and churches that run the food banks on the work they do. During the half-term recess I will be visiting the food bank in Bristol run by FareShare, which is an excellent organisation. Those charities make an immeasurable difference to people’s lives, but as Kate Wareing, Oxfam’s UK poverty programme director, has said,
“Everybody in the UK should have enough money to feed themselves and their families, whether they are in or out of work. It’s an outrage that increasing numbers of people in our country are having to visit food banks to feed themselves or put a hot meal on table for their children.”
So although I welcome the work of those running food banks, I—unlike the Secretary of State—do not welcome the need for their existence.
Families are not only turning to food banks. The Child Poverty Action Group has found that for a quarter of the children in the UK, school dinners are their only source of hot food. In Bristol the number of children eligible for school meals has been rising. Fortunately, the local schools forum agreed to maintain funding after this Government discontinued the ring-fenced school lunch grant, but schools too will be affected by rising prices. The value of breakfast clubs is often overlooked, despite the fact that 32% of children regularly miss breakfast. The simple truth is that too many children arrive at school each morning having not eaten a proper meal since lunchtime the day before. Research by London Economics found that breakfast clubs led to a statistically significant increase in attainment and improvements in punctuality that clearly outweigh the costs. A survey by Magic Breakfast, a charity that provides breakfasts at 22p per child at 200 primary schools, including some in Bristol, found that 88% of schools see improved attendance.
In the limited time I have left, I want to talk about the problem of food waste. Many people would regard it as immoral that good edible food is thrown away when people are going to bed hungry. On a global scale, all the world’s 1 billion hungry people could be lifted out of malnourishment on less than a quarter of the food wasted in the US, the UK and Europe. Charities such as FareShare and FoodCycle are taking concerted action to tackle the problem, and doing so in a way that also encourages healthy eating, community involvement and volunteer engagement. I am proud to be a patron of FoodCycle.
Much of the problem lies in the supply chain—farming, feeding livestock, transportation, supermarket supply, restaurant policy and expenditure, and a demand for out-of-season food free from visual imperfections, as we heard from Laura Sandys. I congratulate her on her Ugly Food campaign.
In its most recent report on the grocery market in 2008, the Competition Commission concluded that supermarkets are guilty of passing unnecessary risks and excessive costs on to their suppliers—for example, through forecasting errors by supermarkets. They might tell a manufacturer a week in advance that they will probably want 100,000 sandwiches, but on the morning the sandwiches are to be delivered, they substantially reduce their order, leaving the supplier with a pallet-load of sandwiches which they cannot sell. Worse still, many products carry the supermarket’s own brand name and supermarkets will often forbid the manufacturers to sell the products on, insisting that they must be sold to them exclusively. There is also concern that if they give the products to charity, that will damage the brand.
Particularly shamefully, supermarkets often agree a price for a product with their supplier, but when sales are less than predicted and products need to be put on price reduction, the supermarket will turn around and require the supplier to share the burden of the reduced revenue. Even worse, there are the notorious take-back agreements, whereby supermarkets return to the manufacturer produce that they have failed to sell.
Although the work of food redistribution charities is invaluable, their very existence implies an acceptance of the level of social inequality that creates the coexistence of food poverty and food waste. With more than one in five workers earning less than a living wage, low pay is so pervasive that tax credits and food parcels are required to give hard-working families the support they need simply to put food on the table. That is why I strongly support calls for the draft Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill to be brought forward in this year’s Queen’s Speech.
I will also bring forward a ten-minute rule Bill in March calling for action to enforce the principles of the food waste pyramid, which deals first with the reduction of food waste, then the distribution of surplus food to redistribution charities, and then sale or donation for feeding livestock, rather than food waste being sent for anaerobic digestion, or—even worse—landfill. I will be happy to talk with other Members who are interested in the Bill, and I hope that they will join me in supporting it.
In the Order Paper, the title of this debate is “Rising Food Prices and Food Poverty”, but I note that the words “food poverty” appear nowhere in the motion. We should start by examining what constitutes a state of affairs that can be described as food poverty. The Food Ethics Council, a registered charity, states on its website:
“Food poverty means that an individual or household isn’t able to obtain healthy, nutritious food, or can’t access the food they would like to eat.”
With so wide and all-embracing a definition, it could be argued that millions of people, including many quite high up the income scale, are living in food poverty. Having said that, there are people on limited and fixed incomes for whom paying the bills is a great struggle, but I do not accept the patronising view that they are somehow more likely to suffer from obesity because they can afford to eat only certain types of food. As we have heard this afternoon, processed and sugary foods are often much more expensive than fresh foods. I accept that food, as a variable item of expenditure, is always likely to come under pressure when there are other demands on the household budget. The question is what we can do to help those struggling to make ends meet.
I want to make two main points. First, we need to tackle the European Union’s common agricultural policy. It must be reformed. In a limited debate of this nature there is no time to do any more than flag up that disastrous policy. Few other sectors are controlled quite so overwhelmingly from Brussels as agriculture. Despite the Labour party signing away the UK rebate, supposedly in return for substantial reform, the CAP remains a complex system of subsidies and incentives that I believe distort the operation of the free market.
I am interested in my hon. Friend’s point about the impact of the CAP. Does he agree that the biggest impact is caused by completely unnecessary regulation on farming? I happen to be a livestock farmer, and the costs of some requirements, such as electronic tagging, have to be transferred and are a serious contributor to the cost of food.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I submit that the impact of EU regulation is of far greater concern to farmers than their relationship with our nation’s supermarkets. Despite all the tinkering with the CAP, it still takes up more than 40% of the entire EU budget. British consumers would be far better off if we were free from the tentacles of the European Union and its CAP altogether.
Secondly, I do not think that we should interfere with the operation of our retailers. The fierce competition between high street food retailers has led to the sustained availability of a huge choice of foods that previous generations could only have dreamt of. As Asda battles Tesco, which competes with Sainsbury’s, which fights with Morrisons, which battles with Waitrose, Lidl, Booths, Aldi and Marks & Spencer, all competing with each other and with smaller chains and independents, there is surely no doubt that all this competition has served to drive down prices for the benefit of all consumers.
Is it not true that driving down some of those costs has been detrimental to dairy farmers? Milk prices have fallen, and the fact that supermarkets sell milk as a loss leader is having a real impact on local dairy farmers.
Dairy farmers can band together and form co-operatives in order to strengthen their negotiating position, as they have done. The market solution to the problem is to have higher prices. I am conscious of the fact that many Members wish to contribute to the debate, so will leave my remarks there.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in the debate, and I apologise for not being here at the start—I was serving on a Statutory Instrument Committee.
I am afraid that the Government are yet again out of touch, in this case with families feeling the squeeze of higher food prices. At 4%, food inflation in the UK outstrips that of all other EU countries. I am pleased to follow Mr Nuttall, because of his interest in Europe, and to be able to give that context.
As my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) powerfully and graphically spelt out, food poverty is a growing concern. The cost of living crisis is affecting households across the country and more families are relying on food banks. I pay tribute to the food bank in my constituency, organised by Scunthorpe Baptist church, which does a fantastic job in helping people to meet their crisis needs, particularly when there is a dislocation in their benefit payments. As has been said throughout the debate, although we recognise the great benefits that food banks bring to society, it is a great shame and a great condemnation of where we are that people in such a rich country have to rely on them.
I am afraid that the Government are making it harder for families to make ends meet and overseeing a massive growth in handouts from food banks as families struggle with rising costs, higher bills and job insecurity. Rising food poverty is a national scandal. Last year 60,000 people relied on food handouts, including 20,000 children, and one new food bank opened every week. A family with two small children now has to pay over £233 a year more for food due to rising prices.
My hon. Friend Nia Griffith drew attention to the health risks of families eating less fresh fruit and vegetables, and I was pleased to hear Fiona Bruce speak about the contribution that people growing their own food on allotments can make. I am pleased that in my constituency there are initiatives across many primary schools whereby fruit and vegetables are grown to make children and families aware of the benefit of eating them. Indeed, Leys Farm junior school not only has such an initiative, but the produce is served in the school kitchen. There is much good practice out there that we need to build on.
Consumers want transparent food pricing by major retailers so that it is easy to compare goods and to make informed choices, and that is why unit pricing is so important. I am concerned, however, about the need to crack on with introducing the grocery code adjudicator; there is a strong cross-party consensus for putting that role in place.
I have asked several written questions on the matter and, in particular, on the issue of confidentiality in order to protect people who make complaints to the adjudicator, and the responses that I have received have all been in a similar vein: “Protecting the confidentiality of suppliers who raise complaints will be both a power and a duty of the Adjudicator.” But the question is how that is done, and the key issue is how it is managed.
The security surrounding confidentiality is important. I had a meeting today with representatives of a packaging federation, and they made it clear that their members would be concerned about making individual complaints to the adjudicator, and that third-party complaints would need to be part of the structure. Andrew George said that people in the supply chain often operate in a climate of fear, so it is important that the decisions of this House, in pushing forward the role of the grocery adjudicator, ensure that that climate no longer exists and is properly addressed.
The National Farmers Union in my constituency and throughout the country is very much concerned to ensure that there is a third-party complaints process. Alex Godfrey, who represents the NFU in Scunthorpe, has made that very clear to me, echoing the evidence that was given to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.
I hope that this debate helps to hasten putting in place the grocery code adjudicator in a way that gains the confidence of not only the people in this Chamber, but the people out there and, most importantly, the people who might want to use the adjudicator to ensure fair play in the world.
It gives me great pleasure to speak in this debate, as there is no doubt about the conclusion that we should make—that there is a link between food prices and food poverty. It is apparent that the poorest in society will find high prices difficult, and we only have to look throughout the world to find that. As the population of the world reaches 7 billion, and moves towards 8 billion by 2030, we have a greater need to produce more food, and that is where I charge the previous Government, because for much of their final period in office they did not encourage food production. In fact they said, “We can import as much food as we like”; our home production did not matter.
We therefore need greatly to increase our food production in this country, and as other Members have said, we need to use biotechnology in order to do so and to reduce our use of fertilisers and pesticides. A blight-resistant potato is coming, and it could increase food production while dramatically reducing the environmental consequences of spraying potatoes, so there is much we can do, but we have to go forward and do it.
On the grocery code adjudicator, my hon. Friend Philip Davies, who is no longer in his place, missed the point. If these wonderful supermarkets are not doing anything wrong, they have nothing to fear from the adjudicator. The point of setting up the post of adjudicator is to put him or her in place so that, if there is abuse, it can be looked at. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State wants the role of the adjudicator introduced quickly, so we need to give the legislation parliamentary time. Farmers, growers and many other people in the food chain are often squeezed not only by the big supermarkets but by the big buyers in the chains, and that is why the adjudicator is so necessary.
I therefore very much welcome the debate and what the Government are doing to increase food production and ensure that common agricultural policy reform does not set aside more land and stop food production. There is a moral obligation to produce food not only for this country, but for the rest of the world.
In the brief time that I have to speak, I shall make three points: first, about the link between food poverty and obesity; secondly, about the impact of loss leaders; and thirdly, about the role of local food production.
Data from the health and social care information centre show that one third of children are now obese, but the link between deprivation and the risk of obesity is stark. We see it in reception class, but it becomes even starker as children move through to year 6, where currently 23.6% of the poorest children, but only 12.8% of the wealthiest, are obese. The reason why is the difficulty not just with buying food, but with the types of food that are the cheapest, with people’s choices being driven by supermarkets and with the operation of loss leaders.
I would not call on the adjudicator to issue an outright ban on loss leaders, because previous inquiries have shown that such action does not reduce the cost of food overall, but there needs to be much greater clarity about the cross-subsidies that loss leaders introduce, as subsidising products such as alcohol, chocolate and crisps increases the cost of much healthier foods. We need to address that issue, because one of the Labour Government’s greatest failures, as identified by the King’s Fund, was in making progress on health inequalities, which we cannot address without tackling issues such as alcohol and nutrition. That is an important point, because obesity affects children’s life chances and costs the rest of us. We know that, unless we address obesity, by 2050 it will cost the country about £10 billion a year, so the adjudicator represents good value for money.
In addition to addressing loss leaders and ensuring that people have access to good-quality food, Ministers should also consider the role of local food production. I pay tribute to Transition Town Totnes and the Campaign to Protect Rural England for clearly setting out how supporting good, local, sustainable food webs and delivering good, fresh, seasonal produce does not necessarily result in higher prices, and for showing that we can use measures to encourage the right choice to be the healthy choice.
This has been a very good and wide-ranging debate, and all in all I think that we have had 12 speakers, if my maths is good—although maths is not my strong point.
Miss McIntosh spoke eloquently on behalf of farmers, and pressed the Government on farmers’ genuine concerns about currency and exchange rates and rising costs. She spoke also of, in her phrase, “the climate of fear” in the supply chain, and we recognise that. She pushed the Government, as she has in her role as Chair of the excellent Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, to give real teeth and power to the adjudicator. She also almost referred to “good” and “bad” retailers, so I look forward to her contribution to the Labour Left review or to Progress magazine.
Laura Sandys also spoke well, and said that the era of cheap food is coming to an end. Perhaps it is, but if so I am sure we all agree that we need the fairest prices for consumers and fairness throughout the food chain. She mentioned her involvement with, if this is correct, “Tasty but ugly like you.” I do not mean you, Mr Deputy Speaker, of course. I hesitate to lay the words “tasty” or “ugly” on you—[ Interruption. ] No, I will stop there.
Fiona Bruce, who represents a lovely part of the world which I know well, made a very good contribution that could have been called, “The Plot Thickens”. She talked about the importance of grow your own, and I too stress the role of allotments—given that the chair of the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners, a very good gardener, lives in my constituency—and the need to protect and enhance them. The hon. Lady talked of giant leeks, which we see also at Wales rugby matches, and she advocated growing produce in one’s garden or in one’s neighbour’s garden—although in the latter case it is always best to ask permission.
Mr Nuttall said that there was no mention of “food poverty” in the motion. There is: it is in the title. Neil Parish recognised the real problem of food poverty, on which I congratulate him, and he took issue with his hon. Friend Philip Davies about the nature and purpose of the adjudicator, on which we agree. There was also a thoughtful contribution from Dr Wollaston.
Andrew George made a good contribution. He welcomed much of our motion and many of our remarks. I can clarify that we want the adjudicator in the next parliamentary Session. Will he support us? He should not let a drafting error get in the way of our emerging coalition on this matter.
My hon. Friend Robert Flello spoke extremely well for his constituents, describing a “heat or eat” scenario—or, worse, neither heat nor eat. He went into detail on food banks and mentioned clearly that they did not exist in great numbers under Labour because there was not the need for them on the scale at which they are now emerging.
My hon. Friend Pat Glass spoke powerfully for farmers in her area and the early introduction of a powerful groceries code adjudicator in the next parliamentary Session. We agree. “Fairness across the food chain”—her phrase—is a good rallying cry. My hon. Friend Nia Griffith paid tribute to the work of our hon. Friend Albert Owen on the groceries code adjudicator and called for an urgent introduction of an adjudicator with clout. She said, stirringly, that it is a disgrace that anyone should have to rely on charity to feed their family.
My hon. Friend Kerry McCarthy focused expertly on food poverty, the growth in the number of food banks in Bristol and the work being done to mitigate the problem of food poverty. My hon. Friend Luciana Berger described the national scandal of rising food poverty, coupled with the rise in broad poverty issues throughout the UK. She gave direct evidence of the human tragedy for her own constituents, not least because of the late payment of benefits, something echoed by my hon. Friend Nic Dakin.
The Secretary of State talked widely about global issues, but did not focus on the particulars of food poverty and food banks. Labour Members picked up on an astonishing complacency. She described food banks as a triumph for the big society, rather than a tragedy caused by the Government’s social and economic policy. How many more food banks do we need before we can proclaim the big society a resounding success?
When the hon. Gentleman checks Hansard tomorrow, he will see that I did not use the word “triumph”. Opposition Members have failed to observe that, for many decades, many institutions in this country have helped the poor and needy. If he has never been to a harvest festival and understood that churches collect food to distribute among those in their community who really need it, he is not alert to how much that is part of British culture.
Charitable effort has indeed always been part of this country, before the phrase “big society” was invented, but never with the proliferation that we currently see. It is a tragedy.
Let me relate a direct story about one not unusual family of four in England today. One parent is out of work and the other is in a low-paid job. Before Christmas, they found themselves behind on their mortgage, with their council tax debt racking up and the gas and electricity meters running out of money. They receive working tax credit and child tax credit, both of which will soon be cut by the Government. Their home is increasingly cold and dark and the only things in their cupboards are food parcels from the local food bank. The right hon. Lady shakes her head, but they buy what fresh food they can when they can, but without the support and kindness of local people, they would simply go hungry. We would love that to be fiction, but such are now the facts of life for too many families.
Into that harsh reality stumbles a throwback to the 1980s—a former Conservative Minister and hon. Member for South Derbyshire. When confronted recently with that dire social and economic regression, she boldly answered:
“Are you telling me people in this country are going hungry? Seriously? Seriously?”
Yes, seriously—former Conservative Ministers might not want to believe it, but it is a searing indictment of the Government that more and more people across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland find themselves relying on food banks, one of which was opening every week last year. Those people depend on the generosity of others to get by.
Last year, 60,000 people received help from a food bank, a figure that the Trussell Trust predicts will rise to 130,000 in the next year. For all those impoverished families who now need a voice in the Chamber, the words and sentiment of the former Member for Ebbw Vale echo down the years: this is their truth, our truth—tell me yours. What is true across the UK is true in my constituency and neighbouring constituencies. From Llanharan to Gilfach Goch, and Maesteg to Pontycymmer, and all points between, food banks proliferate.
We should pay tribute to the many volunteers and organisations involved, such as the Bridgend food bank and the Pontyclun food bank, but the issue is a terrible indictment of the economic misery inflicted on families under this failing coalition Government. I challenge the Minister and the Government to dispute that stark reality. The Government’s failing policies and inaction on the economy mean that families are finding it hard to make ends meet and struggling to cope with rising living costs, higher energy, housing and food bills, and the constant fear that they could lose their jobs—if they have them—at any time.
For too many, eating is losing out to heating and housing costs. Charities warn that having a job is now no protection; an estimated 10% of food bank recipients are middle earners whose salaries have been cut or frozen or who have recently lost their jobs. Food prices rose by more than 4% last year. Lower-income families are eating less fresh fruit and vegetables. They spend more than 15% of their income on food. In real terms, it comes down to a couple with two young children spending an extra £233 on their annual food bill.
When surveyed by Which?in the last year, more than half of consumers said that increasing prices made it difficult to eat healthily. Nearly 90% genuinely fear the increasing cost of food. Those are startling figures. However, when people need help, the Government seem torn between prevarication and paralysis when it comes to taking action that will go some way towards easing the pressure on people’s wallets—not least by assisting farmers and manufacturers of the food we eat with the retail and financial challenges that they face.
When in government, Labour took action after the hike in food prices in 2008 to address that challenge and to produce more food sustainably. In 2010, we published the first Government food strategy for 60 years and our priority was a sustainable, affordable competitive food sector. We gained cross-party support for the supermarket ombudsman—to ensure a fair deal for farmers and food producers, who still need a fair deal from major retailers—and for the implementation of the groceries supply code of practice in February 2010.
Yes, there was more to be done, but the creation of an ombudsman—the groceries adjudicator—to enforce and monitor the code of practice was a recommendation of the Competition Commission and is supported by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Business, Innovation and Skills Committees. It would do a great deal for farmers, food manufacturers and the public. It was not just us asking for it.
I am happy to say that the code is in place, and that happened while the Labour party was in government. I agreed with the hon. Gentleman when he said last September:
“Every week the government fails to act, farmers are finding themselves in more difficulty.”
So let us get on with it.
We do not want bluff and bluster; we do need action. As my hon. Friend Mary Creagh said, we ignore the perfect storm of rising prices, falling incomes and food poverty at our peril. I urge the House to support the motion.
I compliment my hon. Friend Andrew George, who bowled Huw Irranca-Davies and hit the middle stump, showing the paucity of the motion. I offer advice to the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues—they simply cannot support the wording in the motion. It is a sign of desperation to pray in aid somebody who has not been in the House for 15 years when referring to Conservative or any other policy.
It is clear from this afternoon’s debate that Members on both sides of the House take seriously the challenges posed by food price inflation. It is also clear that down the years Governments of different complexions have seen varying degrees of price volatility. Of course I agree with hon. Members on both sides that wonderful work is done by charities and other organisations to support people on low incomes. That has always been the case. But please can we not pretend that in some parallel universe those charities were all forced into action on
Some Opposition Members have sought to ascribe the responsibility for high prices to the coalition. Clearly, that is undermined by the fact that food prices were rising at a faster rate under the previous Government. Likewise, we know that food price inflation was outstripping general inflation at one point last year, only for the situation to be reversed later in the year. The dynamics of where food prices stand at a particular point in time are of secondary importance to hard-pressed families who are balancing their budgets. Those families want to know what action is being taken to help, not just by Government, but by a range of organisations that have a distinguished track record in this regard.
We have heard of some excellent initiatives in the area of food provision and redistribution. We know about Healthy Start, which is a Government initiative. We have heard about FareShare, which provided 8.6 million meals in the last financial year. Many hon. Members have spoken about food banks, which are organisations set up by wonderful, community-minded people with real compassion. We applaud their activities. However, I say to Opposition Members, in particular the hon. Members for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), that it is ridiculous to say that the rise in the need for food banks is attributable to this Government. This Government spend £122 million a day just to pay the interest on the debt that their Government left us. That is what we have to spend before we even pay off the debt.
No, I will not give way.
The motion is almost entirely consumed with statements about the introduction of the groceries code adjudicator. We agree on the importance of introducing an adjudicator. That is why we have published a draft Bill and are getting on with putting it in place. What is rather more puzzling is the position of the Opposition, who wasted 13 years without introducing the adjudicator, even though they knew that power was shifting from the suppliers to the retailers and had received evidence on that. Despite that, they criticise this Government for not having completed the process in 18 months.
The motion refers to “delays”. The only element of delay is in the motion itself, which demands that the adjudicator be introduced in the next Parliament. The hon. Member for Ogmore explained that that was a drafting error. In that case, he must tell Members not to support the motion. Any Member who supports it is showing a paucity of ambition, because it means that they want the adjudicator to be introduced early in the next Parliament. The hon. Gentleman will have to withdraw the motion. That is the only thing to do. Mary Creagh might want to wait until after the next general election to introduce the adjudicator, but the coalition has no such intention. We will carry on with the work in hand and bring it in during this Parliament.
Aside from the rather narrow focus on the adjudicator, there has been a series of interesting and useful contributions on the work that can be done to mitigate food prices. I pay great tribute to my hon. Friend Laura Sandys and wish her social enterprise well. It sounds like an interesting idea. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Miss McIntosh, who made some interesting comments about the social impact of the threat of high food prices. I confirm for her that the groceries code adjudicator will consider anonymous submissions. She talked in particular about the fruit and vegetable sector. Those suppliers can approach the groceries code adjudicator anonymously.
Nia Griffith asked when the groceries code adjudicator would be introduced. I hope that we have answered her question. The draft Bill is available. I cannot second guess what will be in the Queen’s Speech. I would be in trouble if I did.
My hon. Friend Fiona Bruce spoke about local and home-grown food. I pay tribute to what is happening in her constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives was absolutely on target. He sought, as I do, cross-party consensus because on these issues this House sometimes produces more heat than light. If we look at the matter in detail, we see that there is a lot more that we agree on than that separates us.
The Government are hugely supportive of food banks and other organisations that work to open up access to food. The coalition Government have been clear from the outset about the importance that they attach to third sector and civic activity. The success of many organisations in this area demonstrates why we are right to work hand in glove with them in delivering social solutions.
This debate has demonstrated the extent to which food price inflation is shaped by an intricate matrix of interrelated global circumstances. To stand here and pretend that the Government can step in and bring down food prices at a stroke would be disingenuous. The Government can put measures in place to ameliorate the worst effects of food price inflation, which we are doing through measures such as our continued support for Healthy Start and other schemes. One of the biggest determinants of food price is global and domestic supply, and this Department has put farming and food production at the heart of its business plan. Whether it is in stripping away the needless bureaucracy that has swamped farmers, developing a strategy for balancing the needs of greater food production with protecting our environment, or helping to fund innovation and increased competitiveness, this Government are highly attuned to the need to increase high-quality food production domestically.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is personally driving a great deal of work with other countries to help to meet the food supply challenges set out in the Foresight report. We are investing time and energy to ensure that we are working hand in glove with others on that important challenge. Understandably, the effects of that will take time to be felt.
The fact is that there is no silver bullet. The Opposition should know better than to pretend that the adjudicator will be the cure-all for hard-pressed families. What families need now is for the Government to deliver real help right now to get living costs down to a manageable level. To that end, the Opposition should support freezing the council tax, cutting fuel duty, cutting income tax for 25 million people, extending free child care, increasing the child tax credit, taking action on energy prices and many other measures. They were strangely silent on those measures throughout the debate. That is the programme that the coalition Government will continue to deliver in parallel with our work to increase food security and keep food prices down.
I believe that the House is united in its concern for those who struggle to manage their food bills. That is as it should be. However, this debate has laid bare the absence of any ideas from the Opposition. That is in marked contrast to the practical steps that the coalition is taking to help hard-pressed families up and down the country. On that basis, the motion should be rejected.