Health Improvement and Food Production - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:59 pm on 7 July 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Merron Baroness Merron Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 4:59, 7 July 2022

My Lords, I start by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, on securing this debate on the relationship between improving the overall health of the nation and food production, because the two things are inextricably linked for all the reasons the noble Baroness set out so clearly for us in the introduction. We are having this debate in the context of two crises in particular, although I am sure we could add others: the cost of living crisis and the obesity crisis. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, rightly made the great claim that, despite our so-called greater affluence, we are nevertheless all the poorer in terms of our health and our access to, and provision of, good food.

From this debate, no one could be in any doubt that the food system is continuing to break. This is affecting childhood obesity, our health, farming and biodiversity, and now there is an inability to get three decent meals a day to some 10 million people in this country. If this does not say to the Government that we require a competent cross-cutting strategy, I do not know what would.

I will refer to the 2020 report by the House of Lords Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee, which contended:

The UK’s food system … is failing”.

In response, the national food strategy very clearly said that

“the damage being done to our health and our planet by the food system demands urgent action.”

It would be very helpful to hear from the Minister how much he agrees with these assessments.

I will focus on the Government’s food strategy, because I am sure that the Minister will make great reference to this in his response. Of course, there were high hopes for the food strategy, following the review by Henry Dimbleby. Very sadly, however, we find that it provoked the kind of united response that we would not have wanted—namely, it was roundly criticised by Mr Dimbleby himself and by farmers, food campaigners and environmentalists. Why? Because it turned out to be vague and unambitious, the mirror opposite of what we hoped for. It would be fair to say that the proposals in the Government’s food strategy do something of a disservice to a very well-researched and well-evidenced report by Henry Dimbleby, who took a completely holistic approach to the journey of our food, the impact on our health and the connections between the two.

The review highlighted the terrible damage that poor farming practices would do to our planet. It also called out the complicity of food manufacturers, whose drive for profits is pushing highly processed junk foods on to the nation, as referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin. This is being done in full knowledge of the ill health that we are likely to suffer as a result and the obesity crisis that will overwhelm our health service if urgent action is not taken.

This country is now the third fattest in the G7, with almost three in 10 adults being obese, while many children are going hungry because our school food system fails so many of them in need. Henry Dimbleby’s report was challenging. It said, “Change is never easy”, which is true, and went on to say that

“we cannot build a sustainable, healthy and fair food system by doing business as usual.”

I believe that this debate challenges “doing business as usual”, yet that seems to be the exact approach the Government are taking.

Can the Minister tell your Lordships’ House why the response from the Government barely covered 10% of the Dimbleby review; why it did not respond to the 14 very well-argued recommendations in the report; and why we still do not have a blueprint to tackle the major food issues facing this country?

Where are the policies that would address the situation of 7.3 million people who live in poverty, including 2.6 million children? I ask the Minister: where are the policies to make food banks a thing of the past? That includes food banks which, shockingly, are being set up by hospital trusts to meet the demand from their staff. Where are the policies to tackle the rise in adult obesity, which is putting our health service and individuals under such strain? Why have the Dimbleby plans to improve child nutrition been ignored. Why have the proposals to extend entitlement to free school meals been rejected?

We know that food prices are rocketing and the food system is under strain, but the food strategy fails to address the root causes. Costs are rising dramatically for farmers and food producers, which is putting further pressure on the price of food. As we have heard from noble Lords during this debate, however, crops are rotting in the fields and over 40,000 pigs have already been culled because of labour shortages.

Perhaps the Minister could tell your Lordships’ House about plans to support British business and ensure that British food is affordable. How do we support our farmers and prevent them being undercut by imports with lower animal welfare and environmental standards? Why was the commitment to tackle low-quality imports taken out of the paper at the last minute? We need a plan to ensure that what we buy, sell and grow is more of our British food, to entrench Britain’s reputation as a beacon for quality food, high standards and the ethical treatment of animals. Does the Minister recognise that we ended up with a food strategy that pleases nobody, lacks ambition and represents a missed opportunity? It would be helpful to hear his response on these points.

I should like to pick up the point about the efforts the Government should be making to encourage the food industry to reformulate its products to reduce high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt foods. Perhaps the Minister can help us with this. Can he confirm, in the context of contrary media reports, whether the Government are committed to removing unhealthier foods from checkouts?

It would be remiss if I did not comment on the backtracking on the restrictions on advertising unhealthy food. There was much debate on this matter in the course of the Health and Care Act. Yet, we saw backtracking not driven by evidence but, sadly, by the Government’s wish to calm what might be called somewhat choppy political waters. They were certainly choppy at the time; nobody knew at that point how much choppier they would get. Now that we find ourselves in a new world, perhaps the Minister could commit to reviewing the introduction of those restrictions, because the evidence says that it makes an impact on childhood obesity and we cannot wait.

The Government also said in the course of the food strategy that they were committed to using public sector food procurement policy to improve the quality of food and catering services in the public sector. This would be very welcome. This becomes especially pertinent when we look at the challenges that inflation poses to school and hospital food. Can the Minister advise the House on how the Government intend to do this and whether the Procurement Bill will be one such means to address this directly?

The national food strategy also has a target of halving childhood obesity by 2030. Perhaps the Minister could comment on where we are in terms of being on track to meet this. If he considers that we are not on track, what measures will be taken to get us back on track?

I refer to the helpful briefing by the Food Foundation, which addresses the consumption and production of fruit and vegetables. Is there an intent to use the food strategy to join up the efforts to increase fruit and vegetable production and consumption and to reform the Government’s buying standards to include portions of veg in every main meal, to increase demand? It would be helpful to hear from the Minister a consideration of the amount of fruit and veg that should be consumed and the messages that are conveyed. The five-a-day message has been widely communicated as the recommended quantity but, as indicated in the Eatwell Guide, the recommendation should be closer to seven a day. On the basis that it is accepted that we should be eating more, can the Minister advise us what might be done on this?

It seems that we have a challenge, as the noble Baronesses, Lady Jenkin and Lady Bennett, mentioned, with the onslaught of ultra-processed foods. We are in danger of increasing the distance between the origin of food and the actual intake. What is the plan to guide us towards healthier foods that we can afford, source, prepare and enjoy? Unless all those aspects are dealt with, we will not find ourselves in the situation of encouraging people into a healthier zone—as the noble Lord, Lord Kirkham, referred to—without further direction.

A number of very important questions are raised by this debate. I look forward to the response of the Minister, who I hope will acknowledge the inextricable link between food production and healthier eating but will also have some answers about how we will get there.