Food Supply and Security - Motion to Consider

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:58 pm on 14th May 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 2:58 pm, 14th May 2020

My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, on securing this vital debate and agree with all her comments. The number of speakers is an indication of the concern felt by the House over the security of food supply. We have had a wide-ranging debate; it is clear that there are real problems with the production, harvesting and distribution of food during the current Covid-19 pandemic.

The Government have expressed confidence in the resilience of the UK food supply chain. As many Peers have mentioned, only 53% of the food consumed in the UK was produced here, with 28% coming from the EU. The import and export figures for 2017 demonstrate that we were wholly reliant on imports for all vital foods. It is only in beverages that our exports overtake our imports, solely due to Scotch whisky. It is not wise to be so dependent on imports for our basic food.

Food distribution is fragile as a result of the pandemic. Air freight mainly containing food continues to be flown into the UK on cargo planes. During normal operations, Heathrow Airport usually handles 47 cargo-only planes per week. In contrast, on 31 March, the airport was forced to handle 48 cargo-only planes in a single day. The food miles involved here are horrendous. Can the Minister say whether the Government are considering a review of our just-in-time supply chain? Are they considering using supermarkets to buy more food from local suppliers? This would reduce food miles, be better for the environment and involve less processing.

We have heard from many contributors about customer access. Data from the Food Foundation this month shows that approximately 500,000 children entitled to free school meals have received no substitutes since March. This is 31% of entitled children. Food poverty is a terrible scourge. Vouchers for food, concentrated on large supermarkets, have been spasmodic and in some areas non-existent. Government departments apparently had insufficient capacity to widen the number of retailers participating. As mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, this has left many children in rural areas without access to food. Only two supermarkets will take vouchers online. Can the Minister say why smaller, local shops were excluded from the voucher scheme?

I regret to say that, in my own area, the experience of schools was that the Department for Education was in chaos and teachers were tearing their hair out, with it taking three weeks to issue vouchers. In the end, Somerset County Council came up trumps and produced boxes of food to the same value of the vouchers and delivered them to the homes of the vulnerable entitled children. Given that schools are not returning to full attendance immediately, can the Minister say whether the capacity in government departments has increased to distribute the vouchers efficiently and whether the Government intend to widen the variety of retail food outlets where vouchers can be exchanged?

As others have said, local shops operate at the heart of our communities and across every type of location: villages, housing estates, petrol forecourts and high streets. Some 38% of local shops are located in isolated areas with no other businesses nearby. Before the Covid-19 outbreak, only 12% of convenience stores were providing a home delivery services for groceries. A recent survey found that 38% of local shops had introduced a home delivery service in the light of the outbreak. It is now estimated that this sector is making 600,000 home deliveries per week. This proves that our more local facilities are capable of stepping up to the challenge.

Supermarkets have also sought to increase food availability for consumers by introducing extended operating hours for over-70s and key workers and by increasing the number of delivery slots available. However, the vulnerable are still struggling to get online delivery slots. An elderly couple I know could not get a slot for three weeks. There was no local shop in their village and, because of their age and health, they were isolating.

Since the start of the outbreak, as others have said, food banks have seen a surge in demand, the Trussell Trust noting an 81% increase in demand in the last two weeks of March. While the Government are to be congratulated on their efforts to provide food parcels to the most vulnerable residents, there has been criticism that they do not contain healthy items, as mentioned by many noble Lords.

Independent Age conducted a survey of extremely vulnerable groups. Some 29% of respondents who get food parcels felt there was insufficient food included to sustain them until the next delivery. Some 23% felt that their dietary needs were not being met, as issues concerning medical, dietary and religious requirements were not considered. Does the Minister consider that working with local authorities to better co-ordinate distribution of food parcels would be more efficient and prevent people at risk having to skip meals or go hungry until their next delivery? Will he investigate the composition of the food parcels to ensure a healthy mix of food, including fresh produce, and ensure that food parcels meet individual medical, dietary or religious requirements at no extra cost to the recipients?

In dairy, the AHDB estimates that overall demand for dairy products is currently running at around 2 million litres per day lower than before the lockdown. In poultry meat, pre-lockdown the estimated weekly demand from McDonald’s, KFC and Nando’s was collectively in the region of 2 million chickens per week. Farming systems are biological in nature; they cannot be easily turned off and on. I welcome the Government’s announcement on 6 May of new funding to support dairy farmers, who will be able to access up to £10,000 each to cover 70% of their lost income during April and May. Will this additional support be continued beyond the end of May?

The Agriculture Bill is a vital step towards a more resilient system. The proposed move towards “public money for public goods” at the core of the Bill will enable farmers to restore the natural environment alongside and through the production of healthy, sustainable and nutritious food. It will also improve animal health, minimising the risk of future zoonotic outbreaks of disease, and enhance people’s access to green space, the importance of which has come into even sharper focus through the lockdown.

I turn to highly-seasonal farm labour. It is estimated that around 70,000 workers are needed this year—many noble Lords have referred to this. According to the NFU labour survey, the majority will arrive between April and September. On 6 March 2019, the Government implemented a pilot scheme to allow fruit and vegetable farmers to employ migrant workers for a period of up to six months. The scheme was capped at 2,500 workers as part of a two-year trial. In February, the scheme was extended to 10,000 workers. As of 1 January next year, the distinction between EU and non-EU seasonal worker migrants will cease and the current 10,000 figure is far short of the 70,000 seasonal workers currently deployed. January 2021 is only eight months away, with no clarity as to how the seasonal workers scheme is to be expanded. Are there plans to extend this scheme beyond January 2021?

Through the Covid-19 crisis, we are seeing the UK used as a dumping ground for agricultural products from other countries that have lost their own markets. Goods produced to much lower standards than would be allowed in the UK have a distorting effect on the domestic industry. What are the Government doing to prevent this continuing and what is their long-term strategy for food security, to move towards healthy food and away from processed foods?