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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 20th April 2017.

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Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families) 12:00 am, 20th April 2017

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

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

Energy prices and exchange rates are the key drivers of change in agricultural commodity markets, and they affect all the countries in the world, irrespective of whether they are members of the EU. Following the sharp spike in food prices in 2008, they levelled off in 2014 and fell by about 7% over the following two years. In the past year, they have seen a modest increase of about 1.3%.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

I thank the Minister for his response, but the fact is that the Office for National Statistics is reporting a surge in food prices that is likely to continue. Children are returning to school hungry after the Easter holidays and elderly people are being admitted to hospital malnourished, but still the Government refuse to measure hunger and food poverty levels in this country properly. Is it not the case that they refuse to measure those things because if they did so, they would have to admit some culpability?

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

No, the hon. Lady is wrong; we do measure them. We have the long-standing living costs and food survey, which has run for many years and which includes a measure for household spending among the poorest 20% of households. I can tell her that household spending in those poorest households has remained steady at around 16% for at least a decade.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Marcus Fysh Marcus Fysh Conservative, Yeovil

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Farmers across the south-west are rightly very proud of the high-quality food that they produce, be it beef, lamb, milk and so on. What opportunities from leaving the EU does the Minister see to ensure that they get a fair price for that food in the future?

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

As my hon. Friend knows, we have recently had a call for evidence and a review of the Groceries Code Adjudicator. Representations have suggested extending its remit further up the supply chain, and we are considering those representations. The Groceries Code Adjudicator has made a good start to improving the relationship between producers and supermarkets in particular.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Labour, East Ham

It is common in food processing plants for 70% of the employees to be EU migrants. It is not clear where their staff will come from in the future. Is the Minister committed to defending that sector in the Brexit negotiations, so avoiding price rises from that driver?

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

I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman that I have had regular meetings with food processors. Just two days ago, I had a meeting with the new president of the Food and Drink Federation, and this issue has been raised. According to the Office for National Statistics, some 30% of employees in the food processing sector are from other European Union countries. The Prime Minister has been clear that she wants to safeguard and protect the rights of the EU citizens who are here and that she would expect that to be reciprocated—and that that can be agreed early in the negotiations.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West

May I gently remind the Minister again of the paradox that we starve the poor by refusing to buy their food from them?

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

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. As I mentioned earlier, we give preferential trade access to some developing countries: the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries are especially important in sectors such as sugar. It is important for them to develop those industries.