My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for tabling this debate today. She has set out in stark terms the immediate and longer-term challenges facing our food supply in the UK, and other noble Lords have added considerable knowledge and expertise to the debate.
Since the outbreak was confirmed, our Front Bench have been in regular contact with farmers, manufacturers, supermarkets, unions and food charities, which have all had to take emergency action to respond to the challenge before them. Tremendous progress has been made in keeping supply chains moving. I pay tribute to everyone who has played a part, particularly the front-line staff who have worked in difficult and, often, potentially dangerous environments.
Inevitably, with change on such a scale, potential problems remain. I want to highlight some of those this afternoon. As many noble Lords have pointed out, food poverty remains the number one challenge. The lockdown created two categories of those needing help: the shielded vulnerable, who were instructed to remain at home because of health concerns, and the economically vulnerable, whose loss of income left them unable to feed their families. It is this latter group who still need urgent help. As the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, pointed out, the recent Food Foundation report high l ighted a sorry state of affairs where 5 million people were experiencing food insecurity, including 2 million children —many of whom are skipping meals. Polling undertaken since the lockdown suggests that as many as 8 million adults are struggling to access food.
Local councils are doing their best to reach out to the most vulnerable, and I pay credit to their work. Food banks are doing a fantastic job in difficult circumstances. They are desperately working to plug the gap and have switched much of their resources to food parcel deliveries to those in financial hardship. We obviously welcome the Government’s latest announcement of £16 million to support the food charity sector and get help to those most in need.
However, does the Minister accept, as many noble Lords have said, that the solution lies in resolving the welfare benefit crisis, such as the five-week universal credit wait, that is causing such financial hardship in the first place? Can he explain what is being done to solve the school meal voucher fiasco, where the Edenred scheme seems unable to provide families with their promised vouchers efficiently? There are reports that schools and individual teachers have been calling on families in hardship, with food parcels paid out of their own money. That cannot be right.
Secondly, there have inevitably been problems with food production and distribution. Thankfully, some of those have now been resolved as people have stopped panic buying. But the unions continue to report problems with staff in food manufacturing and supermarkets being asked, for example, to work without appropriate PPE or on production lines with inadequate social distancing measures. What engagement has Defra had with the food sector unions, which would be able to describe first hand the unacceptable experiences that some of their members still have to face?
The crisis has also highlighted some more fundamental problems in the supply chain. We have been reminded by a number of noble Lords that the UK is only 53% self- sufficient in food and drink, and over a quarter of our food is supplied by the EU. While most of those imports are still getting through, our reliance on food and vegetable trucks coming across from Europe reminds us of the importance of striking the right Brexit deal.
The lockdown has highlighted the need for more local food production but, as many noble Lords have highlighted, there is a real challenge in recruiting UK seasonal workers, which means that we are in danger of relying more, not less, on imported goods. The Government have sought to reassure us that our crops will be harvested, but the press are reporting a very low take-up of jobs via the Pick for Britain scheme and an understandable reluctance of potential recruits to sign up for seasonal contracts—some of which are many months long—when they might be expected back at work with their prime employer. Can the Minister update us on how many UK recruits have signed up via this scheme; what proportion of pickers this year are expected to be eastern European, and what arrangements are being made to ensure that they can travel here safely; and whether there is indeed any danger of crops being left to rot because of a lack of workers?
Meanwhile, the crisis in parts of the dairy industry showed how vulnerable farmers were to a drop in milk demand, and the control of powerful processors such as Freshways to drive the price down. The Government’s initial response was to encourage a voluntary, market-led solution, which turned out to be inadequate in the face of all the evidence. While we welcome the fact that a new government bailout scheme for dairy farmers was announced last week, does the Minister accept that it took far longer than was necessary to provide some reassurance for the sector? Can he explain how the adequacy of the scheme will be monitored and adjusted as necessary? Does he recognise that dairy farmers need better contractual protection in the longer term to avoid similar crises in the future?
There is an irony in the current crisis that while many people are feeling particularly patriotic, many of the supermarkets continue to import cheap dairy, meat and poultry products from abroad, at the expense of the quality products grown by British farmers. Does the Minister accept that government and retailers could do more at this critical time to promote British food, which would in turn support the livelihoods of British farmers? Could the public sector procurement policies be amended to give priority to locally sourced produce—for example, as people have suggested, in prisons, hospitals and schools—as happens in many other countries?
Today, we are addressing short-term pressures, but this crisis gives us a real opportunity for a radical rethink of our food supply and security priorities going forward. We very much look forward to debating the Agriculture Bill, which I hope will come to the Lords shortly. It is as clear as ever that the country’s food system is broken and in need of urgent reform. There is an opportunity to put environmental good practice, a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a local food strategy at the heart of the Bill.
We support the notion of farm payments rewarding the delivery of public good. A strong UK farming sector, based on sustainable farming, will give us the opportunity to reverse the declining percentage of UK-grown food consumed in the UK. A legal guarantee of future high animal welfare and environmental standards would protect UK consumers, while protecting British farmers at risk of being undercut by poor-quality imports. It is of considerable regret that the Government did not support our amendment to this effect in the Agriculture Bill yesterday, but I am sure we will return to this when the Bill comes to the Lords.
In the meantime, strategies to encourage changing diets and less food waste will help us to meet our climate change adaption obligations, as well as help people to live healthier lives. The Fisheries Bill, which is currently being considered in the Lords, will provide the opportunity to revitalise the UK fishing sector, with sustainable fishing and marine conservation also at its heart.
We have been facing up to some difficult challenges in our food and farming sectors today. These problems will undoubtedly remain with us for the foreseeable future. But I hope we can also recognise that there is an alternative future for our food system that can give us some hope and optimism. I hope we will be able to debate that in fuller terms when the Agriculture Bill comes before us in due course.