Food Prices and Food Poverty

Part of Opposition Day — [Un-allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 5:10 pm on 23rd January 2012.

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Photo of Rob Flello Rob Flello Shadow Minister (Justice) 5:10 pm, 23rd January 2012

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.