Government Food Strategy

– in the House of Commons at 4:45 pm on 13 June 2022.

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Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 4:45, 13 June 2022

With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Government’s food strategy. Recent events have been a reminder of the importance of domestic food production. It gives us national resilience. Throughout the pandemic, those working at every stage of the food system, from farming and fishing to manufacturing, distribution and retail, did not let us down. The food industry has shown tremendous commitment and ingenuity in the face of recent international events.

The UK is largely self-sufficient in many products, including wheat, most meats, eggs and some sectors of the vegetable industry. Overall, for the foods that we can produce in the UK, we produce around 74% of what we consume. That has been broadly stable for the past 20 years, and in our food strategy, published today, we are committing to keep it at broadly that level in future, with the potential to increase it in areas such as seafood and horticulture. For instance, we are exploring policies to incentivise the use of surplus heat and carbon dioxide from industrial processes in a new generation of glasshouses here in the UK producing salad crops such as tomatoes and cucumbers.

With the cost of agricultural commodities linked to global gas prices, we recognise concerns about the cost of food. Through this strategy, we are setting out long-term measures to support a food system that offers access to healthy and sustainable food for all. It will complement the measures we have already taken to support those struggling to afford food and help them to eat healthily, through the Healthy Start scheme, breakfast clubs and the holiday activities and food programme.

The food industry is present in every part of our country. It is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK—bigger than automotive and aerospace combined. Food manufacturers provide employment opportunities in areas where there might otherwise be deprivation, they offer apprenticeships and opportunity, they invest in research and development and they give local areas a sense of pride and identity. None of our food manufacturers could succeed without the farmers and fishermen who supply them with high-quality produce.

Our fresh produce industry has always required access to seasonal labour, and I am pleased to announce today that we will bring forward another 10,000 visas for the seasonal workers route and expand the scheme to cover poultry. We on the Government side of the House want people at home and abroad to be lining up to buy British. Our food strategy sets out our intention to consult on ensuring that the public sector sources at least 50% of food locally or produced to higher standards.

There are new challenges to address that will require the characteristic ingenuity of our food industry. As Henry Dimbleby’s independent review highlighted, poor diet has led to a growing problem of obesity, particularly among children. Good progress has been made on reformulation in some categories. Industry-backed initiatives such as Veg Power, which conceived the successful Eat Them to Defeat Them campaign, have shown the value of positive advertising to promote vegetable consumption among children. But there is more that must be done in future, with Government and industry working in partnership on a shared endeavour to promote healthier diets. The Government accept that they have a role, and new regulations regarding the position of retail displays of foods that are high in salt, fat and sugar take effect later this year.

One of the recommendations of the Dimbleby review was the formation of a new data partnership between industry and Government, which we will be taking forward. Food manufacturers and retailers have a wealth of data and behavioural insights that can help to identify solutions. This will provide consumers with more information about the food they eat while incentivising industry to produce healthier, more ethical and sustainable food.

Our strategy acknowledges that the food system has a significant impact on the environment. We are therefore taking forward the recommendation of the Dimbleby review for a land use strategy. Our future agriculture policy will seek to financially reward sustainable farming practices, to make space for nature within the farmed landscape and to help farmers reduce their costs. From precision breeding techniques that reduce the need for pesticides to tractors fuelled with methane captured from slurry stores, and new feed additives that can significantly reduce methane emissions from ruminants, technological solutions are developing at pace. Our future farming policy will support innovative solutions to the environmental challenges we face.

Our food strategy will set us on a path to boosted food production, ensuring that everyone has access to healthy, affordable and sustainably produced food. I commend this statement to the House.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 4:50, 13 June 2022

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. It certainly did not take long to read.

It is now nearly a year since the publication of Henry Dimbleby’s independent review of England’s food system, a review commissioned by the Secretary of State’s Department. On the back of the review, he promised a national food strategy White Paper by January. Not only is he six months late on his own deadline, but this is just a statement of vague intentions from the Government, with no concrete proposals to tackle the major issues facing this country.

Henry Dimbleby’s review consisted of almost 300 pages, yet the Secretary of State has responded with barely 10% of that. To call this a food strategy is farcical and, frankly, an insult to all who took the time to contribute to the review. There is no need to take my word for it, as we all saw the responses over the weekend from industry leaders and those involved in the review. They are aghast at the Government’s lack of ambition, as the Secretary of State will have seen as he watched the television and read the morning newspapers over his cornflakes. This is a missed opportunity.

We should be discussing a real plan for delivery, a plan to put right the Government’s record of failure: 7.3 million people, including 2.6 million children, are living in food poverty; 2.1 million food parcels were handed out last year alone; 64% of adults are obese, as are 40% of children; £2.6 billion of trade with the EU, our biggest trading partner, has been lost; a quarter of all exports to Ireland have been lost completely; 40,000 pigs have been culled because of the labour shortage; and food is rotting in farmers’ fields because it cannot be picked.

This should have been a plan for food security and ending food bank usage by ensuring every family has access to healthy, affordable and sustainable food. It should have been a plan to back our farmers rather than undercutting them through the Government’s trade deals. It should have been a plan to drive growth through investment in new enterprises, the food and drink sector and our thriving co-operative sector. It should have been a plan to ensure that we buy, sell and make more here in Britain by supporting our fantastic producers and entrenching Britain’s reputation as a beacon for quality food, high standards and ethical animal welfare.

This should have been a plan to ensure that our schools and hospitals are stocked with more locally sourced, excellent quality food. It should have been a radical plan to tackle the obesity scandal in this country by ensuring every family has access to the healthy food that we know too many are missing, and it should have been a plan to deal with today’s supply and cost-inflation crisis.

We know, for example, that fertiliser and carbon dioxide availability has had a direct impact on the price of household staples such a bread, milk and meat products. Alarmingly, the UK’s biggest producer of fertiliser and CO2 closed one of its plants last week because of a lack of support from this Government. The Secretary of State has been warned repeatedly, but action never follows.

Where is the plan to address the real issues facing this country today? All we see in this document is more dither, more delay and absolutely no ideas to address the scale of the challenge from a Government who are, frankly, devoid of ideas. Cruelly, there is no support for British farmers who kept this country fed during one of our most difficult times. [Interruption.] I hear the growls from Conservative Members, but what I hear most are the calls from British farmers who, for all the Government’s warm words of encouragement, are left waiting for support whenever they go to the Government for help. They wait and wait, and nothing ever comes. This is not a plan but a missed opportunity when the country can least afford it. Britain deserves better than this.

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

The hon. Gentleman refers to the length of my statement. I like to keep statements in this House as brief as possible, with them being a summary. I think my statement ran for about six or seven minutes, which is generally what Mr Speaker likes to see.

Clearly, if the hon. Gentleman wanted more detail, he could have read the full report, but it is clear from the list of issues he raised that perhaps he did not read it, because I simply cannot accept any of the criticisms he made. He raises the issue of obesity, and the report deals at length with it. We have already introduced a soft drinks levy that has driven reformulation. As I said in my statement, later this year we will introduce new point of sale regulations that will also drive reformulation.

The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of labour on farms. Had he read the report, he would know that we have increased the number of seasonal agricultural workers from 30,000 to 40,000, and we have worked closely with industry to understand precisely its needs. He says that we have no plan to increase spending on British agriculture by the public sector—by schools and hospitals—but we have set out a clear ambition to increase that spending by 50%. That is set out in great detail in the report.

On household spending on food, we absolutely recognise that with the sharp rise in energy bills there are households that are finding it difficult to afford food. That is why we have put in place a range of support mechanisms, the latest of which were announced by the Chancellor two weeks ago. We are talking about significant help for the most vulnerable families to help with those energy costs. We also know that although food prices have indeed risen, by about 0.2% in March and 1.5% in April, in the past 15 years or so, including during the last financial crisis, household spending on food remained fairly stable, even among the lowest income households, at about 16%.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman mentioned the important issue of fertilisers, and we are aware of that. It is important to note that the Billingham plant, run by the major producer of fertiliser here, is continuing to operate and has full order books until the end of this year, and that the price of ammonium nitrate has fallen back significantly from its peak in March and is now at a level that farmers are able to purchase at.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons), Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons)

Order. Before we proceed any further, let me say that I am aware that nine Members in the Chamber did not hear what I said just before the proceedings on this statement commenced. I reiterated what Mr Speaker said at the beginning of the earlier piece of business, the urgent question, when he made it very clear that Members who are not in the Chamber at the beginning of an answer to a UQ or a statement by a Minister will not be called to ask a question during the proceedings on that UQ or statement. Sometimes it appears that people hear what Mr Speaker says but just ignore it, as though it did not apply to everyone or there might be extenuating circumstances—there are none.

So at the beginning of this statement, I reiterated what Mr Speaker said and I said that anyone not in the Chamber at that moment, 4.45 pm precisely, would not be called to take part in this statement. I have a list of the people who came in after 4.45 pm. So if you were not here at the beginning, please do not stand, because it is discourteous to do so when I have already said, or Mr Speaker has already said, that you will not be called. Let us proceed, with everybody who was here at the beginning of the statement. I call the Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Sir Robert Goodwill.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

I welcome the direction in which the strategy takes us, but will the Secretary of State comment on what I might suggest are a couple of omissions? First, he rightly says that, in terms of the food that we can produce, we produce about three quarters of what we consume. However, in recent years, we have seen a dramatic reduction in the amount of vegetable oil we produce, making us more reliant on sunflower oil and rapeseed oil from Ukraine and on unsustainable palm oil from the far east. What can we do to address that? Secondly, on the location of photovoltaic installations, more regard seems to be given to the proximity of an electricity substation than to the quality of the land on which they are installed. Could the Secretary of State perhaps look at that issue again?

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

First, may I take this opportunity —my first at the Dispatch Box—to welcome my right hon. Friend to his new post on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. He was a predecessor of mine as a Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and I know that he will bring considerable expertise to his new job.

On the two points that my right hon. Friend raised, planning guidance already sets out a clear presumption against building solar farms on the best and most versatile agricultural land, which is classed as grade 3b and above. I am aware that there have recently been instances where BMV land has been built on, and we are discussing that with Government colleagues.

On the second issue that my right hon. Friend raised, around our dependence on imported sunflower and rapeseed oil, the rapeseed crop has declined in recent years due to the withdrawal of the use of neonicotinoids. It has recovered in the last year, and prices are strong, but the ultimate solution probably lies in the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, which will be introduced in the House later this week and bring forward our ability to tackle some of these agronomic challenges.

Photo of Richard Thomson Richard Thomson Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Financial Secretary), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I welcome the advance sight that I had of the statement. Agrifood is a hugely significant industry, providing a great deal of employment. It is also of huge strategic importance to us as a country. It is therefore quite troubling—I hope the Secretary of State will appreciate quite how troubled I am by this—that the National Farmers Union president, Minette Batters, said earlier today that the industry is in “absolute crisis”.

It is easy to see why. We have massive labour shortages, we have food going unpicked and we have food being ploughed back into the fields. I welcome the 40,000 visas that have been announced, including the 10,000 additional visas, but that barely scratches the surface of demand across Scotland, let alone the rest of the UK, when it comes to tackling these issues. It is imperative that we do all we can during this heightened cost of living crisis to support our producers to maximise the quantities of food we produce domestically, so that we can keep costs down.

We have problems at our borders. Thanks to the Brexit we have chosen, there is effectively a free-for-all when it comes to goods coming in, but massive barriers and trade frictions when it comes to us exporting goods. The all-party parliamentary group on fisheries has today produced a report that makes for grim reading for anyone in the industry, or with a care for it, given how Brexit has played out. In addition, we have a continued welfare crisis in our pork industry, and farm incomes remain at historic lows.

It is hard to encourage people to buy as we might wish them to, when they are grinding against the cost of living crisis and, in some cases, struggling to pay for the energy necessary to boil vegetables or even to make something as simple, basic and nourishing as a bowl of soup.

We therefore need to take steps to put our food strategy on the same basis as we would an energy strategy. We need to tackle energy prices, the cost of fertiliser and the debilitating shortage of labour. We need to support rather than undermine our producers when it comes to food and welfare standards. We need to support the industry as the custodian not just of our food chain and supply but our landscape. Finally, we absolutely need to make sure that the industry plays its part in feeding our people and battling the cost of living crisis.

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

The UK Government stand absolutely four-square behind our fantastic Scottish food industry. Scotch whisky is our biggest food and beverage export, and Scottish salmon is also a major export. We have some really strong industries in Scotland.

On the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised, we absolutely recognise that farm businesses have seen their input costs rise, particularly over the last six months. That is because the price of fertiliser and many other agricultural inputs is directly correlated with the gas price. It is also the case that agricultural commodity prices have risen. Generally speaking, since 2016, as a result of the referendum result and exchange rate changes, we have seen farm incomes and farm commodity prices rise quite strongly. The price of lamb is now more than £6 a kilo. The price of wheat has doubled in the past year, and we have seen strong prices in other sectors, such as that of beef. The picture is mixed, though. There are some sectors that have not seen that price rise, but, generally, the position has been strong. Finally, on the issue of labour, as I have said, we have a seasonal agricultural workers scheme. We work closely with the industry to understand its needs. Our assessment at the moment is that 40,000 visas are necessary for this current year.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Chair, Committee of Selection, Chair, Committee of Selection, Chair, Committee of Selection

I will, if I may, draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to paragraph 2.4.2, which concerns public procurement leading by example. It says that

“the public sector reports on progress towards an aspiration that 50% of its food expenditure is on food produced locally”.

As a very small British farmer, I think I can speak for all of agriculture when I say that we want not 50% British, but 100% British.

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

The commitment that we outlined today is in addition to the previous commitment of which my hon. Friend will be aware. It is the case that, some years ago, we introduced changes to the Government buying standard and the so-called balanced scorecard, which already requires all Government Departments and the Crown Commercial Service to follow that approach, and that is mandatory. What we are seeking to do in this case is to broaden that to hospitals and schools, which control their own budgets, but it is a slightly different situation.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee of Privileges, Chair, Committee of Privileges

It is great that the Secretary of State is increasing the number of seasonal workers from 30,000 to 40,000, but, as I understand it, last year, we did not even manage to get the 30,000. A quarter of those who applied for visas and got visas did not even come here. We are now looking to Nepal and Tajikistan to pick our cucumbers, tomatoes and all the rest of it. This is a manifest failure. If we are not able to pick our own food and put it on our own plates, how will we make sure that Britain is properly fed in the future, unless we are really going to answer that question?

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

Last year, we had just short of 30,000 people—it was around 27,000—who came to this country under the seasonal workers scheme. It was a covid year when there was a lot of stress and disruption to travel. This year, we are currently approaching the 30,000 level for those who are either here or on the way here. For the high-fruit season later in the year and for the poultry season at the end of the year, we judge that another 10,000 visas is about right. I also point out that many other European countries are struggling to find labour at the moment. The hon. Gentleman will also know that, last year, the majority of people who came here were from Ukraine for reasons that we all understand given the atrocious invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Those people have now stayed behind to fight, which is why we are drawing from a wider pool of countries in this current year.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

I may have to try to press this with the Prime Minister on Wednesday, but let me try it on the Secretary of State now. The Isle of Thanet has produced, historically, some of the finest fruit and vegetables in the country bar none. I think I am right in saying that, in Thanet Earth, we have the largest greenhouse complex in the whole of Europe. This summer, Thanet Earth will be producing most of the tomatoes that most people in this House and beyond will be eating. We want to do more. We want to grow for Britain, but we will not be able to do so if we smother our farmland in housing and have nothing left on which to grow. Please may we have a moratorium on house building on grades 1 and 2 agricultural land while we get this policy right?

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

I am quite sure that my hon. Friend will take the opportunity to raise that with the Prime Minister and also with other Departments as well. I visited Thanet Earth in his constituency. It is an extraordinary operation. There is some 220 acres of glass. It is the largest salad producer here in the UK. As I set out in my statement, we want more organisations like Thanet Earth in this country. We want more of that kind of large-scale glass co-located with industrial processes, and that is what we have set out in the strategy today.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Labour, Stretford and Urmston

Social distributors of surplus food such as The Bread and Butter Thing and suppliers to food banks such as Klyne & Klyne, both located in my constituency, report interruptions to the supply chain and difficulties in redistributing white-labelled foods. Can the Secretary of State say what discussions he is having with such distributors to ensure continuing, stable and secure supplies for those who supply food to those on extremely low incomes?

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

The hon. Lady raises an important point. That specific issue has not been raised with me previously, but I will take it up. The Government work quite closely with organisations such as FareShare to support food charities around the country, and if there are particular difficulties of that sort I am happy to investigate.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

The strategy is welcome inasmuch as it is a recognition that food security is as important as energy security. It is critical that we reduce the length of supply lines, so guaranteeing sustainability and traceability. Being that I know something about Government procurement, due to my ministerial jobs, will the Secretary of State make it clear that the desire for us to produce more food that is then consumed by the public sector is not merely an aspiration, but an obligation—not merely a hope, but an expectation?

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

We have different levers for different parts of the public sector. With core Government Departments, we can give exactly that kind of clear direction; indeed we do, through the agreements they have with organisations such as the Crown Commercial Service, they must pursue our policy. We want to work with the wider public sector on this, including schools and hospitals, but it is fair to say that they too want to support healthy, nutritious, locally produced food.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

Recent surveys have demonstrated food insecurity among the workforce within food production itself. In other words, many of the workers producing the food cannot even afford to pay for it themselves. Recent surveys have also demonstrated increased dependency on food banks among food workers. Although there is a reference in the strategy to improving productivity and pay, working with the industry, that will take time. What emergency measures is the Secretary of State looking at to boost levels of pay so that the workers in food production can afford the food they produce?

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

The Government have already increased the national living wage to £9.50 an hour. We have stipulated that those coming in under the seasonal worker visa scheme must be paid at least £10.10 per hour. The right hon. Gentleman should also note that in food processing generally, because it is quite a tight labour market, we have seen significant increases in wages for the lowest paid in this country.

Photo of Fay Jones Fay Jones Conservative, Brecon and Radnorshire

I warmly welcome the strategy, which recognises that trees and butterflies are extremely important, but so is domestic food production. When the Secretary of State talks about rewarding sustainable farming, he need look no further than my constituency and its rolling green hills, grazed by livestock—a perfect example of the virtuous circle of UK livestock farming. Can I invite him to restate his support for the UK red meat sector, which, contrary to media portrayal, is good for our health, our environment and our economy?

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

The environmental issues around livestock production are more complex than some would have it. The truth is that permanent pasture has an important role to play in seeing the restoration of nature and the recovery of biodiversity in the farmed landscape. Livestock production done well, particularly in pasture-based systems, has an important role to play in rekindling that biodiversity in nature that we all want to see.

Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

With food and energy prices spiralling, many parents are worried about putting food on the table. Our children’s health and education should be a top priority, yet not only have Ministers rejected Henry Dimbleby’s recommendation to give a free school lunch to every child whose parents are on universal credit, but they have even rejected his back-up, less generous proposal to change the eligibility criteria. Will the Secretary of State listen to parents and think again about denying an extra 1.5 million children in struggling households a free school meal?

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

The principal driver of pressure on household budgets at the moment is the very sharp rise in energy costs. The measures that the Chancellor announced two weeks ago are a major step towards helping the poorest households to deal with that blow to their finances. The Department for Work and Pensions has already made some changes to eligibility for free school meals, because on 24 March it made permanent the extension of free school meal eligibility to include some of the children who had no recourse to public funds, subject to specified income thresholds.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Conservative, Epsom and Ewell

Opposition Members might like to note the fact that April exports to the EU were the highest on record.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on the statement, in which there is much to be welcomed. He knows of my concern and that of Back-Bench members of the 1922 committee about food security and encouraging the maximisation of the harvest over the coming months. Will he ensure that as the strategy is taken forward he does not walk away from some of the Government’s biodiversity strategies, which are so important, and makes sure that they remain at the heart of what we do? In particular, can we resist the turning of farm land into pine forests to the exclusion of biodiversity and of the rewilding that can make a difference?

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

My right hon. Friend raises an important point. He has been a long-standing champion for the hedgehog, as many Members will know, and he has previously raised with me the issue of food security. I hope that what we have set out today addresses our intentions in that regard. He is also right that sustainable environmental protection and profitable, successful food production are not in conflict with one another but are two sides of the same coin, and if we get our policy right we can achieve both.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

Twelve years into Tory Governments, this pretence of a strategy says that DEFRA will work with local authorities and food charities in priority areas to tackle food-related inequalities. Some 5,000 households in Southwark used food banks last year and more than 30 organisations in my central London borough are trying to tackle the issue, which is largely driven by Government policy. When will the priority areas be fully identified, and what additional support will eventually be provided as a result of being determined a priority area?

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

As I said, we have a range of policies in place, including the holiday activities and food programme and the work we do through FareShare. We also have the household support fund, and we are working with local authorities to identify where the needs are to ensure that that support can be directed to the right places.

Photo of Neil Hudson Neil Hudson Conservative, Penrith and The Border

I welcome this statement that the Government are bolstering food production and food security. Producing food sustainably and looking after the environment go hand in hand, and our fantastic UK farmers are best placed to do that as they have been doing it for generations. The pandemic and the war in Ukraine have brought food security into sharp relief, and farmers are faced with the challenges of rising costs of fuel, animal feed and fertiliser, the supply of which is more uncertain with the announced closure of one of the UK’s fertiliser and CO2 plants. Can my right hon. Friend reassure farmers in Cumbria and across the UK that the Government will support them through these challenges in the shared endeavour to produce more local food?

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

My hon. Friend raises some important points. We are watching the situation closely on fertiliser supply. Our current assessment is that production at the Billingham plant, which has the lion’s share of UK production, is continuing. We understand that it has had strong orders during the course of the year and farmers are managing to source their fertiliser by that route. We are also successfully continuing to import fertiliser from countries such as Norway. However, we monitor that closely because it is important that we ensure that farmers can get access to fertiliser, particularly for next year’s winter wheat crop.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

The Secretary of State will find many of us who will support him in seeing food prices as a massively important issue as we all have constituents who are not choosing between heating and eating because they cannot afford to do either. On the question of how we can cut the cost of food and support British farming, the elephant in the Chamber is that he has not talked at all about the impact of leaving the European Union yet the evidence from the UK in a Changing Europe think-tank is very clear about the impact of that on food prices. The children of this country cannot eat red tape, yet that is exactly what has been imported into this country and is now strangling British farmers. What conversations has he had with his colleagues in the Department for International Trade and with the Prime Minister about how to cut through that and make sure that we can export all our British delicacies and put food on the plates of our constituents?

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

I think the hon. Lady is wrong on food prices for this reason: EU-produced food can still enter the UK completely tariff-free, and at the moment we are not even requiring export health certificates or other paperwork. The impact on food prices of leaving the European Union and the single market is negligible; the real driver of food prices is oil prices and exchange rates, and that has always been the case.

Photo of Steve Brine Steve Brine Conservative, Winchester

The Government are to be commended on a thoughtful piece of work, specifically on farming and domestic production. The approach on meat-eating and methane is right, too—technology is our friend in that—but I have to say that on salt and sugar I am a wee bit disappointed. The Secretary of State will know that I put together the prevention Green Paper in the Department of Health and Social Care. That built on the sugar tax, which led to the sensible reformulation of soft drinks. It did not push up costs to the consumer, because the industry reformulated its products. That document, agreed across Government, had proposals to extend that winning formula to other products high in fat, salt and sugar. We can kick the idea into the long grass, and many will be pleased that we have done that—I concede that—but we are storing up obesity, type 2 diabetes and stroke, which we are increasingly seeing in younger people, for the future. Surely as a publicly funded health system, we have a right, and I would argue a responsibility, not to kick the issue into the long grass.

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

My hon. Friend highlights an important issue and I can assure him that we are not kicking it into the long grass. The soft drinks levy was indeed a tremendous success, but only because it was relatively easy to take sugar out of soft drinks, because it is only a sweetener and reformulation can be driven quite simply. With some other products, such as chocolate, cakes and so on, sugar is a different type of ingredient that is harder to reformulate and take out. Later this year, we are taking forward new point-of-sale restrictions on foods that are high in salt, fat or sugar. I can tell my hon. Friend that that is already driving reformulation and changes in retailer supply chains.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

May I press the Secretary of State on the issue of school food? Eighteen years ago, in 2004, Hull City Council pioneered free healthy school meals as a means of fighting food poverty, improving classroom attainment and tackling the problem of childhood poverty. The evidence is there that that works. If the Government accepted into the strategy the recommendation on that, it would help them fulfil their aims for healthy eating, easing the cost of living crisis and the levelling-up agenda. Will the Secretary of State think again about accepting the recommendation on free school meals?

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

We have to be mindful of some of the unintended consequences if we load too many of these things on to the universal credit system. As Members will know, one of the principles behind universal credit is its gradual, tapered withdrawal. If we have cliff-edge entitlements of that sort, that starts to undermine the principle that sits behind universal credit. Nevertheless, we recognise the value of free school meals—that is why we have always had them and why some changes were made permanent on 24 March. We are also more widely recognising the impact on households of the increase in energy costs, and that is why the Chancellor announced that package of measures two weeks ago.

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin Conservative, West Worcestershire

I warmly welcome the spotlight that the strategy shines on the wonderful food produced in West Worcestershire and across the whole United Kingdom. I also welcome the fact that unemployment in this country is at an historic low. In welcoming the extra 10,000 seasonal agricultural workers that have been announced today, will the Secretary of State elaborate on the advice that he received that meant that this year, with our strong labour market, he did not accept the request from farmers to go as high as 90,000 visas?

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

My hon. Friend does indeed represent an important part of our country for horticulture—in fact, I spent a summer working on an apple orchard at Bransford in her constituency. On her question about the evidence that we have, we work closely with the operators running the seasonal agricultural workers scheme. As I said, we are approaching 28,000 visas issued or people already here. The judgment is that for the top fruit season, which is predominantly what they will be recruiting for later this year, a further 10,000 will be sufficient. The truth is that the total number of people who do seasonal agricultural work in the UK is estimated to be between 60,000 and 70,000. We think it is still the case that close to half of that number are coming as settled EU citizens or are people who are here, with the other half being carried by the scheme. That will change over the years, but for the current year, we think that 40,000 is sufficient.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy)

As has been referenced already, last week, CF Fertilisers in my constituency announced that it would begin consultation on closing the plant, which puts 300 jobs at risk. It also exposes us far more to the international fertiliser market, which is the opposite of what I understood this strategy was meant to achieve. Ministers have had nine months’ notice that there was a problem at the plant and, from what I can see, they have done absolutely nothing to help it survive. The Secretary of State said that he was monitoring the situation but, frankly, we need far more urgent action than that. What is being done to look at potential purchasers of the site or to keep production going there? Are my constituents’ jobs not worth more than just a monitoring exercise?

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

We are monitoring the situation, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that there are some commercially sensitive issues around that. He talks about the potential sale of the site to alternative operators, which I know that the company is investigating. If he would like, I will offer to meet him to update him on some of those issues.

Photo of Katherine Fletcher Katherine Fletcher Conservative, South Ribble

I thank the Secretary of State for recently meeting the little pocket of marvellousness made up of the grade 1 agricultural land and glasshouse growers in South Ribble. Banks, Tarleton and Hesketh Bank are producing some of the finest celery, turnips, tomatoes and salad leaves in the world. Glasshouse growers are often forgotten, but I note that the food strategy does not forget them and actually enhances support for them; I welcome the farming innovation fund to help to improve their productivity. I hope to speak on the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill later this week, but will he assure me today that he will continue to use the flexibility that he has in the seasonal agricultural workers visa scheme to make sure that 10,000 workers are available to pull the crops out of our grade 1 agricultural land and that he will keep an eye on the situation in case it changes? My farmers rely heavily on that seasonal labour.

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

I very much enjoyed meeting growers from my hon. Friend’s constituency with its wonderful fenland and high-grade horticultural land. We do indeed keep a close eye on the requirement for seasonal agricultural workers, but, as I said, we currently judge that 40,000 is sufficient for this year.

Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat, North Shropshire

I met various farmers and farming representatives in my constituency on Friday. They are keen to produce food sustainably, but they told me that their biggest problem is the phasing out of the basic payment scheme before the environmental land management scheme is ready to go ahead. Moreover, they believe that they will not be able to get involved in the sustainable farming incentive because of the up-front costs involved in some of those schemes. Will the Secretary of State look at that problem? We are in danger not only of our environmental and welfare aspirations falling away, but of some of our critical food producers going out of business in this critical short-term period.

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

As the hon. Lady will know, the Government committed to keeping the budget that we spend on agriculture the same in cash terms for every year of this Parliament. That is exactly what we are doing. Although we are making a modest 15% further reduction to the BPS payment this year, we are simultaneously giving farmers access to that money through the sustainable farming incentive. It is universally open to all, there are not the up-front costs that she talked about, and we will pay farmers quarterly. It is a scheme that leading farming organisations, such as the Country Land and Business Association, have been supportive of. The old legacy EU subsidies on land ownership meant that 50% of the budget went to 10% of the wealthiest landowners in the country, which cannot make sense or be a coherent policy for the long term.

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I draw the House’s attention to the fact that I am married to a farmer.

Lincolnshire farmers produce fabulous food in harmony with the environment, but many farmers of late have been concerned that the Government were more interested in their becoming biodiverse or parkland farmers than in their growing food, so I am pleased to see this strategy and the Government’s focus on the importance of food security and productivity. I am also pleased to see the £270 million farming innovation fund, but could the Secretary of State tell us how farmers apply and when this money will start to become available?

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

The money is already available, and we have already had a number of rounds. Indeed, earlier this year, when we opened a round of the farming investment fund for equipment on farms, it was over-subscribed, so we trebled its budget to £48 million. This week, we have opened a new round to support farmers who want to add value. There is £30 million going into that fund, and there will be many more rounds over the current year or two.

Photo of Kim Johnson Kim Johnson Labour, Liverpool, Riverside

Food prices are rocketing and food insecurity is increasing, but this White Paper goes nowhere near addressing the root causes of these issues. The recommendation to extend free school meals to more than 1 million children on universal credit has been ignored, so how does the Secretary of State plan to address this, and ensure that our children are well fed and nourished to be able to learn?

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

As I explained earlier, the Chancellor has unveiled a package of measures to help those on the lowest incomes deal with the sharp increase in energy costs. We also have a range of programmes, including Healthy Start and the holiday activities and food programme.

Photo of Jo Gideon Jo Gideon Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent Central

Given the recommendations of the independent review, the White Paper is not bold enough, but I am pleased that the junk food cycle is being addressed with a goal on healthy ingredients sold and reporting with the Office for Environmental Protection, Food Standards Agency and Climate Change Committee. I am pleased with the innovation package, particularly research into diet, as well as with the visa scheme review, mandatory procurement and the target of a 50% reduction in child obesity by 2030. Does my right hon. Friend agree that these policies should be enshrined in law through a good food Bill?

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

We have judged that we do not need any new legislative powers to implement all the things we have set out to do in the strategy. However, we have been very clear that the Food Standards Agency, the OEP and others will of course perform their statutory functions in holding Government to account on progress on these agendas.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

Missing from this strategy is food security for our very youngest citizens—those who require infant formula. We only need to look to the United States to see how precarious the formula market can be. The forced closure of a formula factory due to contaminants resulted in costs being driven up and families being left without. In the UK, the cost of infant formula has gone up, with which Healthy Start vouchers are not keeping pace, so families are struggling to access that. How does the Secretary of State plans to address the deficiencies in infant formula policy? Will he implement the code of marketing of breastmilk substitutes, which will protect both those who use infant formula and those who breastfeed?

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

The hon. Lady raises an important point. During the pandemic, when there were concerns about global supply chains, we looked in great detail, with the Department of Health, at possible problems with the availability of infant formula milk. She is right that we import the vast majority of our infant formula milk, principally from France and Ireland, but we have done some work to encourage and support dairy processors in this country to enter the market.

Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Conservative, Totnes

May I confirm that, under the strategy, public money for public good in environmental land management schemes will be about food production? Will the Secretary of State push for a national food security target? Lastly, on the impact of fuel prices, fishermen in Brixham are laying up their vessels because their average takings for an entire day’s work are £32. If we do not step in, fishermen across the United Kingdom will lay up vessels. We need a strategy fast, or we will not be able to anything on fish and shellfish.

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

On the latter point, I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss some of the issues that fishermen in his constituency have raised with him. Over the last six months the price of most fish has strengthened considerably, which has generally been good for fishermen’s incomes, but I am happy to look at the issue he raises. On the wider point, under the Agriculture Act 2020, Governments are already required to produce a review of food security every three years—the first was published in December last year—and they have a legal obligation, when designing future schemes, to consider food security and availability.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

Our farmland in my constituency of Strangford is highly productive so we greatly welcome the strategy, but the drive for rewilding is being discussed locally. I am concerned that the United Kingdom will be reforesting land that could and should be used to grow produce and thereby enhance our food security and self-sustainability. As farming is a devolved matter for all the regional Administrations, what safeguards are in place to ensure that good arable land is planted and that reforestation and rewilding are introduced only on land that is not appropriate for productive farming?

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

Agriculture policy is indeed devolved but we have created the UK agricultural partnership. Its last meeting took place in Northern Ireland and I heard about some of the Northern Ireland Administration’s plans for their future policy. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that my opposite number there, Edwin Poots, is well aware of these issues and there is very little danger that he would allow things to be planted inappropriately where there should be crops.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons), Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons)

I thank the Secretary of State and everyone who took part in the proceedings. I noted that, at last, attention was paid to what Mr Speaker and I had said about presence in the Chamber and that all Members who were not here at the beginning of the statement had the decency and honour not to ask to be called. That has been gratefully noted.