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Leaving the EU: Food Prices

Oral Answers to Questions — Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd March 2017.

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Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions) 12:00 am, 2nd March 2017

What recent assessment she has made of the potential effect on food prices of the UK leaving the EU.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The main drivers of changes in food prices are energy costs and exchange rates, and those forces affect all countries, whether or not they are members of the EU. In 2008, there was a steep spike in food prices, which continued to rise until 2014. Since 2014, food prices have fallen by 6%. Despite the depreciation of sterling last summer, retail food prices have remained relatively stable, with an overall fall during 2016 of 0.5%.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions)

Large numbers of people in my constituency are in work, but they are still in poverty. They are feeling the effects of increases in food prices over recent months. Given that they are so dependent on cheaper EU food products, what will the Minister do to protect them in the longer term?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

As I said, the facts do not bear out what the hon. Gentleman says. Food prices have fallen by 0.5% over the past year and by 6% since 2014. We monitor the situation closely. The annual living costs and food survey closely measures the poorest households in particular and how much they spend on food, and the situation has remained remarkably stable over the past decade.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West

The paradox is that we starve the poor by refusing to buy food from them. Will the Minister bear that in mind when we escape from the common external tariff?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. We have some preferential trade agreements in place with some developing countries, particularly to buy sugar from the Caribbean. We want to maintain and secure such arrangements so that we can support developing countries.

Photo of Sue Hayman Sue Hayman Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Minister talks about food prices falling, but supermarkets are warning of the potential for food prices to rise significantly this year, which will have a huge effect on every household in the country. Nearly half our food is imported and prices are already starting to rise for the first time in three years owing to the weak pound and inflation. What exactly are the Government doing to help with rising prices in people’s weekly food shop?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

As I said earlier, we closely monitor the amount of money that people spend on food, which has remained remarkably stable at around 16.5% for the past decade. We continue to keep the issue under review. I simply point out to Labour Members that the greatest spike in food prices took place in 2008 on Labour’s watch. Food prices have been falling since 2014.

Photo of Sue Hayman Sue Hayman Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Minister talks about monitoring, but it was recently revealed that research to inform agricultural and environmental policy once the UK leaves the European Union has not even been commissioned by the Department. The Minister’s warm words are all very well, but the agricultural sector desperately needs long-term clarity and the Government are failing to deliver it. Will the Minister tell us how the Government can have any real understanding of the current situation without adequate research being in place?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I simply say to the hon. Lady that the Department is doing a vast amount of analysis and research to inform future policy. We received a specific parliamentary question about whether we have commissioned direct scientific research on the effects of leaving the European Union, and she is right that we have not, but we do not need to. All our environmental policies are regularly evaluated for their strengths and weaknesses.

Several hon. Members:

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