Brexit: Food Prices and Availability (EUC Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:06 pm on 25th April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Labour 3:06 pm, 25th April 2019

My Lords, this has been an incredibly interesting debate. I had better declare an interest first in being a member of the EU sub-committee. The only relevant interest that I have to declare is that I recently chaired an egg summit for the country’s largest retailer. This is only a guest appearance: my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch cannot be present this afternoon and I said that I would be happy to fill in. There is no way that I intend to wind up, although the noble Earl, who is not now in his place—I do not complain about that—made a remarkable maiden speech. At one point, when he was giving us an incredible practical history lesson, I wrote, “Nothing has changed”. That is the way it seemed to me. But he raised an issue that I will come to in a moment in some detail and for that I am grateful.

On the complaints, the Minister should be able to answer the question about the Agriculture Bill delay. There is no good reason for it. There is also the Fisheries Bill. Everyone is mystified by the inability of his department to progress this matter in the other place.

I want to raise three issues. On the issue of tariffs, which is not unimportant, in relation to Northern Ireland and Ireland, the Government announced on 13 March that 87% of goods were tariff free and then said that they would not apply tariffs to Northern Ireland for goods coming from the Republic. But there was no explanation about how goods would be treated that came into Northern Ireland and to Great Britain that originated in the Republic of Ireland. This is not a clear-cut matter. It is not black and white. The milk in Bailey’s Irish Cream crosses the border four times during production, so this is a constant flow. It is an integrated system on the island of Ireland. How would goods going from Northern Ireland to Ireland be treated? Would they have to be covered by EU tariffs—yes or no? There is a massive lack of clarity on some basic issues relating to Ireland and Northern Ireland in respect of contact with Great Britain.

I do not think that Defra has had much of a grip on this. I realise that it is a small player. I am not complaining about the department. It is a small part of government and usually gets forgotten until the end of negotiations. People start to think about fishing almost last, and before the very last comes agriculture. All the great issues of state are dealt with and carved up, and the department gets short shrift at the end. But some clarity now about the situation between the north of Ireland and the Republic regarding the Government’s announcement about what they plan to do about tariffs would not be amiss.

I have two other issues to raise with the Minister. Both drop from the report, without going over the history of the fact that we have had to wait a year for it. The first concerns food prices. It has been raised by more than one noble Lord. There are arguments about what the effect would be on food prices and, like the report, I am not for one minute saying that the increase in tariffs would go straight through to the checkout. It would not. The 22% increase in the average tariff on food would not be anywhere like that. Indeed, senior members inside the Government have said it could be 10% on some products. Others have suggested that World Trade Organization trading would increase consumer prices for food by about 4%. In paragraph 9 of the Government’s response to this report the Minister is quoted. I have forgotten who it was; I think it was George Eustice, but I think the Secretary of State said the same thing:

The Minister set out in his appearance at the committee”,

that World Trade Organization trading,

“is an extreme scenario … it shows that food prices might go up by about 4%. It is pretty marginal”.

That is the Minister’s attitude. Is it marginal for the poor, those on the lowest incomes?

Defra is a good publication ministry and it is always worth looking at Food Statistics in Your Pocket: Prices and Expenditure. The latest edition I have is dated 26 February this year. Under table 2.1 it states:

“A rise in food prices is more difficult for low income households to cope with because those on low incomes spend a greater proportion of their income on food—a rise in food prices has a disproportionately large impact on money available to spend elsewhere”.

Table 2.2 is very interesting. It shows that, on average, in 2017 households spent 10.6% of income on food. Households in the lowest 20% of equalised income spent 50% more. They spent 15.2% of income on food in 2017, so the relative affordability of food is definitely not good for the poorest. The table clearly shows that gap.

Table 2.3 shows that income after housing costs fell 10.7% between 2002-03 and 2016-17 for low-income households. The same table shows that over the same period food prices increased 4.3% in real terms, so for households with the lowest 20% of incomes, incomes fell by 10% over the same period as food prices went up by 4%. We already know that such households spent 50% more of their total income on food than the average, and the Minister says 4% is pretty marginal. That is a really “do not care” attitude as far as the poor are concerned.

I was going to use the Trussell Trust’s information for last year—2017-18—when it distributed 1,332,952 three- day emergency food supplies, which was a 13% increase on 2016. Today it has produced figures showing that last year it distributed 1.6 million food packs, a 19% increase on last year, so food prices are crucial for the low paid. As someone said, it probably does not bother many people in this House, but no one in government appears to care. Benefits are being cut, and universal credit is an absolute disaster, as I know from my work on the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, and nothing seems to be being done there. There is a major crisis here. Teachers are spending their salaries on buying food for children. The graphs are all going the wrong way. The income of the lowest paid is going down and food prices are going up. It does not matter whether it is 4% or 10%, I do not call it pretty marginal for that section of society. It would be really nice if the Minister, for whom I have tremendous respect, showed he cared about it. Of course, whether he can do anything about it is a different kettle of fish.

My second and final point involves the Minister. At one time, I kept a list of all the comments he had made about food standards and Brexit. He has hung himself out at the Dispatch Box on probably a dozen occasions in the past couple of years. I draw his attention to the Government’s response to this report. Paragraph 48 states:

“Any new products wishing to enter the UK market must comply with our rigorous legislation and standards—we will not compromise on animal welfare and food safety”.

The second sentence of paragraph 50 states:

“We have no reason to believe that other third countries”—

“other” because we will be a third country when we are out—

“cannot meet our high standards, and this will be a condition for any market access granted as part of future trade agreements”.

Incidents happen at Question Time. A very convoluted exchange at Oral Questions in this House on 19 March started with a Question from the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering. The Minister was questioned by my noble friend Lord Cunningham and one or two others in relation to tariffs that the Government have produced in relation to eggs. Because of the convoluted nature of the exchange and what looked like a contradiction, I tabled a Written Question to the Government, and the Minister answered it. I asked about the apparent contradiction in the announcement of farming tariffs and the operation of Council Regulation 5/2001 from December 2000 relating to marketing standards for eggs. When I came back to the House on Tuesday, I saw the Answer from the Minister on my desk. I have not tracked it down in the printed Hansard, but I have here the one with his signature on it, so it will do. It is House of Lords Question 14741. The Minister answered:

“The Government remains committed to high standards of animal welfare and food safety. In the event of no deal, existing UK import standards will still apply and the level of tariff applied does not change what can and cannot be imported. Furthermore, existing EU egg marketing standards will be retained in UK law once we leave the EU. Where the UK cannot sufficiently guarantee that imported eggs are equivalent to these Regulations, the eggs must be clearly labelled as not meeting the UK standard. This will provide the necessary clarity to enable consumers to make informed purchasing choices”.

Frankly, I think the Minister should start to regret ever signing that Answer because he has actually admitted that following Brexit the Government are prepared to allow food products into this country that do not meet our standards, and that they would be put on sale with a notice saying that they did not meet our standards. One thing is a cast-iron cert: they will be cheaper than home-produced products and people will buy on price. That is the point of the supermarket. When you are in the lowest 20%, you will buy on price. I do not understand how the Minister could have signed that Answer, which contradicts every statement he has ever made about us not allowing food into this country that does not meet our standards. What he has effectively said is that such food does not meet our standards or our regulations, but we will allow it in and we will label it saying it does not meet UK standards. I do not deny that it would not be on sale if it was not safe. I am not arguing the safety argument; I am arguing the standards argument because it contradicts everything he has ever said. How can a Government Minister at this stage in Brexit, with all the debates that we have had, knowingly sign off an Answer like that? It is bad enough that he was presented with the Answer in the first place, but he signed it off when he must know that it contradicts every speech he has ever made here about maintaining our standards. I look forward to his response when he has further advice.