Food Supply and Security - Motion to Consider

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:16 pm on 14th May 2020.

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Photo of Lord Gardiner of Kimble Lord Gardiner of Kimble The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 3:16 pm, 14th May 2020

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. Food supply and food security are of the greatest importance at all times; in the context of this current unprecedented challenge, they are extremely critical. I am therefore extremely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for securing this debate.

As the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, said, it will not be possible for me to address now all the points that noble Lords have made during this thought-provoking three-hour debate. I shall of course pick up on all the points that have been made and reply fully.

I join noble Lords, in particular my noble friends Lady Altmann and Lord Holmes of Richmond, in paying tribute to all those across the food industry for their momentous efforts to help feed the nation. They are providing a vital service and the response has been remarkable. They have been working hard to keep food flowing into stores and people’s houses. We can be enormously proud of, and grateful to, all those businesses, large and small, and their employees, who have stepped up to create innovative solutions to ensure that people have the food they need. I am particularly grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Mallalieu and Lady Randerson, for raising small shops, and indeed to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, for mentioning delivery services from not only shops but pubs and takeaways, which many of us have witnessed. I am also most grateful to my noble friend Lord Lucas for recognising the work that civil servants and officials have undertaken, and for emphasising the importance of the experience they bring.

This has been a very difficult time for many, particularly vulnerable people. The Government have been working extremely closely with industry and across civic society. Industry has adapted quickly to changes in demand. Food supply into and across the United Kingdom remains resilient, and the general supply situation for most goods is returning to normal.

The Government have worked quickly to introduce new measures to make sure that businesses can continue to keep food supply flowing. These measures include extending delivery hours to supermarkets and flexing rules on drivers’ hours to allow a higher frequency of deliveries to stores. We have temporarily relaxed elements of competition law, allowing retailers to co-operate in the national interest to keep shops stocked. We have also designated employees involved in food production as key workers. These interventions give the sector the flexibility it needs to ensure that food reaches people in a rapidly changing situation. On competition law, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, that the CMA has created a dedicated Covid-19 task force to identify any of the sorts of issues he mentioned. I would be happy to pass on any particular points for him.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and many other noble Lords raised the issue of the crisis falling hardest on certain parts of society. I want to emphasise this because I have witnessed it: the Government are working extremely hard with others to ensure that everyone can safely access nutritious food. With reference to the economically vulnerable, on 8 May we announced £16 million of funding from DCMS to ensure that food is available to critical front-line services supporting vulnerable people. This includes a food charity grant scheme to provide food to some of the most economically vulnerable people. Applicants must confirm they will aim to use food funded under this grant to provide or contribute towards—I emphasise—nutritionally balanced meals in alignment with the Eatwell Guide. We work with FareShare, WRAP, other charitable organisations, DWP and MHCLG to help at least 5,000 front-line charities—a point that the noble Baronesses, Lady Janke and Lady Tyler, made.

I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, that schools can make food parcel or gift voucher arrangements with any local or national supplier that they consider appropriate. I will take back the points that have been made so that I can have a discussion with the Department for Education.

To address the needs of clinically and economically vulnerable people who do not have a wider support network to help them secure food or who are unable physically to go to supermarkets, we have developed a shielding scheme. We have so far identified more than 2 million clinically extremely vulnerable people in England. Where they do not have a support network, we are ensuring an uninterrupted supply of food. Wherever shielding individuals let the Government know that they are having trouble accessing food, their details are passed on to supermarkets, which put them at the front of the queue for online delivery slots. We are arranging for them to receive packages of essential supplies delivered directly to their doorstep. They are designed to deliver the nutritional requirements—I emphasise this issue as the noble Baronesses, Lady Boycott and Lady Bakewell, raised it—of one person for one week and have been reviewed by nutritionists. To date, more than 1 million food parcels have been delivered in England. It is the biggest effort to deliver supplies to those in need since the Second World War. I am grateful for what my noble friend Lady Altmann said in this regard.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, raised this point, and I want to emphasise that we are working to support others who need help with food supplies, including the elderly, the disabled, blind people, people self-isolating, people with pre-existing health conditions following enhanced self-distancing and people who normally rely on food deliveries by supermarkets or support networks. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, that we are working closely with local authorities, businesses and charities to help this group access food through food deliveries from local retailers, wholesalers and food businesses. We have also worked with supermarkets to increase access to priority delivery for click-and-collect slots. This group can also refer themselves or a family member to NHS Volunteer Responders. I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the almost 600,000 people who have come forward and are working on shopping for food and essential supplies on behalf of vulnerable people.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Scott of Needham Market and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, referred to food waste. There is much on this that I would wish to discuss, but we should record that during this time WRAP has said that food waste has been reduced by nearly one-third. That is a lesson to be learned. I also endorse what my noble friend Lord Caithness said about hard-working farmers—I want to mention the fishing industry here, too—who maintain the supply of products which form an essential part of many household diets.

My noble friend Lord Shewsbury mentioned eggs. I say to him, and I will take this back, that it is a requirement to include the country of origin and farming requirements on eggs. We welcome all parts of the food chain when they promote and source British products. I am aware of WTO matters but I am happy to say to your Lordships, and more widely, that I always seek to buy British and will always encourage others to buy British food and drink. My noble friend Lady Redfern was joined by my noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach in championing not only Lincolnshire but food production at home.

The noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, raised the new fund to help support those dairy farmers who have seen decreased demand due to the loss of market in the food service sector. The new fund will provide support for those most in need. Eligible dairy farmers in England who have lost more than 25% of their income over April and May will be entitled to up to £10,000 each, to cover 70% of their lost income during those months. I will take back the points about any further months thereafter.

I am pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and my noble friend Lord Blencathra raised fishing. A £10 million support package for England’s fishing and aquaculture sectors was announced on 17 April to secure the sustainability of the English fishing industry. It is also important to say that Defra and Seafish are working closely on the “Sea For Yourself” campaign to promote seafood species caught in UK waters. I emphasise to my noble friend Lord Blencathra, and reaffirm, our intention to be an independent coastal state with all that that commands. Other support includes the business interruption loans and temporary competition law exemption, allowing the dairy industry to share information and work together.

My noble friend Lady McIntosh has been a champion of our farmers and producers and we ourselves continue to champion them. We are supporting them to grow more great British food and to provide a reliable, sustainable and nutritious food supply to the British public.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, raised the importance of improving the productivity of agricultural and horticultural activity. The Agriculture Bill will allow us to provide financial assistance in these matters. This includes support to increase the productivity of fruit and vegetables.

On a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, we want the entire supply chain to help deliver healthier food and encourage healthy eating. This point was also made by the noble Lord, Lord Patel. Our National Food Strategy will build on the Agriculture Bill to help ensure that our food system delivers healthy and affordable food for all, built on a resilient and sustainable agriculture sector. This point was raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Bakewell and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and my noble friend Lord Caithness. We will also ensure that the Bill sets out our plans to reward farmers for, among other things, safeguarding the nation’s high welfare standards.

I say to my noble friend the Duke of Wellington and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, that we are leading on different initiatives to promote British produce. This includes Defra’s “Food is GREAT” campaign, while the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board recently launched a new marketing campaign to increase supplies of milk, funded jointly with Defra, the devolved Administrations and Dairy UK. We also have campaigns under way to promote beef and pork, with a further campaign on lamb to come.

I endorse my noble friend Lord Blencathra’s words on the importance of innovation. On another point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, and the noble Lord, Lord Patel, anyone going to Harper Adams will see the extraordinary work going on there, for instance. Since 2013, the Government have funded an agri-tech strategy with £160 million and the recent industrial strategy challenge fund with £90 million, transforming food production. Defra is now developing an ambitious industry-driven R&D package.

My noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach, the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, and the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, raised a really important point. Farming, the environment and rural resilience are a complete jigsaw puzzle. It is not about separate silos; all of it is absolutely intrinsic—another point that my noble friend Lord Lucas raised.

Seasonal labour was raised by many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Naseby. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, also mentioned prisoners: Defra is working with the MoJ on the temporary release licence scheme for agricultural work. I am most grateful to the noble Lord for raising that. It was also raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, the noble Baronesses, Lady Quin, Lady Parminter and Lady Sheehan, and many other noble Lords.

There has been a strong response from thousands of British people expressing their interest in agricultural work in the coming months. Work is currently in hand on the government/industry digital hub “Pick for Britain”. We think that, for some of the early weeks, labour has been covered, but we are conscious that from the end of this month and beyond we need ever more people to come forward. We are working on the promotion of the website. I say to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, that there will be students. My noble friend Lord Duncan of Springbank and the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, know very well that this is hard work and we are very conscious that we will need to encourage British people to come forward. That is what we intend to do and we very much hope that those who are able to come from overseas can do so as well.

On the issue of self-sufficiency, obviously self-sufficiency does not equate to overall food security, however important increasing British production is. My noble friend Lady Verma and the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, referred to communities across the world—many vulnerable communities—where we will want to import from, and sustainably. We continue to monitor closely the impacts of the outbreak on international supply chains, including any disruption to freight transport, borders, production and trade. At present, all short-term risks have stabilised and we have a free flow of goods along the international supply chain. We will continue to co-operate with international partners to ensure that the UK continues to receive vital supplies of food and other critical goods. We are working with the Department for International Trade and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to ensure that we maintain close ties internationally and monitor any risks that may arise. I believe that we will have a very close relationship with our EU friends and partners. This is work in progress and I am confident that there will be a successful result.

The noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, raised shipping, as did the noble Baronesses, Lady Randerson and Lady Ritchie. On 24 April, the Government announced a financial package to keep freight flowing on routes into and across the four nations of the United Kingdom. I am conscious of the importance of food flowing into Northern Ireland—the noble Lord, Lord Empey, raised this. Although routes are currently running without significant disruption, the package is designed to help avoid future disruption or delays. In the interest of time, I will, in my letter, write in full on the situation of Northern Ireland, because I think it is absolutely critical. We wish and intend to have no difficulties in our trading arrangements across the United Kingdom. Indeed, we want to have very good trading relationships with the EU and across the world as well. As my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot—I think—and the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and others raised, there are undoubtedly going to be lessons from this crisis and for the longer term as well.

We have included in the Agriculture Bill a new requirement for the United Kingdom Government to report on food security to Parliament at least once every five years. The report will analyse a wide range of data and will contain information on food supply, including the role of strong domestic production alongside diverse sources of supply. It will cover a range of issues, including global food availability, supply sources for food, the resilience of the supply chain, household expenditure on food, food safety and consumer confidence. The five-year frequency was set because we need to allow sufficient time to observe key trends, but I emphasise that these matters are under constant consideration.

Our engagement with businesses and representative bodies in the food sector has been extensive; I have seen that for myself. Food businesses have responded swiftly and responsibly to ensure the supply of food and have worked with us to make sure that those most in need have continued access to food.

Throughout, we have wanted to highlight the crucial role the food and farming sectors have played, now more than ever. While we remain confident in our supply chain, we must not be complacent and will continue to work with industry to ensure that there is food—and great British food—on our shelves and in our kitchens.

I thank the noble Baroness and all noble Lords, particularly those I have not been in a position to mention. I am very conscious of all that has been said and am taking back all the comments made. I will write fully and am very grateful for this debate. As I said at the beginning, it has been extremely thought-provoking —not only about the current crisis but most definitely for the longer term.