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Queen’s Speech - Debate (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:37 pm on 22nd October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Boycott Baroness Boycott Crossbench 8:37 pm, 22nd October 2019

My Lord, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, and I was very pleased to hear about the Welsh dairy farmers. As far as I know, Stoke Newington was an area where the milk for London used to be produced and where the cows lived.

Although it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, the Queen’s Speech was certainly not a pleasure to hear on my area of passion, which is our food system. As ever with the Government, there was little to do with food policy and our need to change. Every day, we hear stories about how our food system does not work. Take the first thing of the day—breakfast. Every day, 1.8 million children are at risk of starting the day hungry. Hungry children cannot concentrate. They miss out on hours of valuable learning. By the time they leave school, children eligible for free school meals are, on average, 19.3 months behind their wealthier peers. This is data recently collected from Magic Breakfast. This is not just gross inequality; it is also economic madness. It is certainly not unlocking our children’s full potential.

Children from the poorest households also struggle to eat healthily, which in part explains why children with severe obesity are four times more likely to live in deprived areas than in less deprived areas. The Chief Medical Officer’s report two weeks ago told us about the devastating consequences of childhood obesity, to which other noble Lords have referred. There are 100 new cases of childhood type 2 diabetes every year. There are 650,000 children with fatty liver disease and 90,000 children eligible for bariatric surgery, of whom less than 10 get the operations every year. Sally Davies was right to say this is a blatant contravention of children’s right to health.

Food is not only fundamental to health; it is also fundamental to the climate emergency. Currently, a third of greenhouse gas emissions derive from deforestation, as we grow palm oil for processed food and cut down rainforests to grow soy to feed livestock—possibly the most inefficient way of obtaining proteins that we could manage. It drives species extinction, as well as ill health.

Yet, in the gracious Speech, there was silence on all of this. The Agriculture Bill, which is making its way through Parliament very slowly—after the news tonight, I have no idea when it might arrive here, so I would be grateful if any noble Lord has a clue—concentrates a lot on the environmental goods that farmers need to provide. It promises public funds for public goods and nobody wants to disagree with that, but we need this Bill to help support farmers to deliver health goods as well.

Support for the horticulture sector is a case in point. Much neglected by the common agricultural policy, we could grow a great deal more of our fruit and veg in the UK. With the right mix of marketing and demand-side incentives, including public procurement, we could help our farmers improve our diets. It is a staggering fact that, for every one of your five a day you eat, your risk of early mortality decreases by 5%. Yet, according to the Food Foundation, of which I am a trustee, 30% of our children eat no vegetables at all, unless you count chips from McDonald’s.

Food is an incredibly complicated area. We need much more than the right support for farmers. Food is in almost every ministry; it touches health, trade and the environment—right across the board—and we have not, since the war, had a national food strategy. But one is being worked on right now, and I am very proud to say that I am an adviser on it. Over in Defra, Henry Dimbleby and a fantastic team are pulling together a strategy that will bring all these different elements together to try to give us a food system that really is fit for purpose and works for the future. It is so important that every noble Lord in this place supports it. We must not let this golden opportunity pass; we need to start debating all these key issues.

“Business as usual” is no longer good enough. Our food system runs, basically, for profit, like our agriculture system. It does not run to protect our health or the environment. In my years running the London Food Board—eight of them for our current Prime Minister and two of them for Mayor Sadiq Khan—I used to say, “Every day in London, we dish up 30 million meals”. As anyone who knows it can be quite difficult dishing up dinner for two, 30 million is mind-boggling. I understand why it is very hard for politicians to get their heads around this. It truly is awesome. But if we carry on with our small piecemeal policies and relying on the wonders of companies such as Magic Breakfast, which feeds 48,000 children every day through charity and raising money, then we really only have ourselves to blame for an environmental crisis and a health crisis, both of which could be prevented.

I would like the Minister to assure me that, whatever happens—I understand that she or anyone else is probably not in the position to give a definite answer to this—that her Government will continue to support the work of the food strategy and, hopefully, usher it into life, regardless of who sits in No. 10.