Food: Imports and Security - Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:49 pm on 24th October 2022.

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Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative 2:49 pm, 24th October 2022

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the current level of the pound on food imports and food security.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question in my name on the Order Paper and refer to my interests as set out in the register.

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. The depreciation of the pound should not have a direct impact on household food security; however, it may have an indirect effect if increased import costs cause the price of food to rise. It is not for His Majesty’s Government to set retail food prices. Through regular engagement, Defra will continue to work with food retailers to explore the range of measures they can take to ensure the availability of affordable food.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

Given the unprecedented food inflation we have seen—the highest level for 40 years—and the fact that farmers and consumers are facing unprecedented challenges, will my noble friend the Minister take this opportunity to boost farm productivity at home to stabilise food security and to boost self-sufficiency in food, which for fruit and vegetables is a woeful 16%? This is a one-off opportunity to help farmers and consumers with both their budgets and food productivity and growth.

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My Lords, we enjoy a high degree of domestic food security and self-sufficiency but we are not complacent about it. We have responded to recent events, as in the food strategy, putting food security at the heart of the Government’s vision for the food sector. It is absolutely our intention to help farmers become much more productive in the two sectors that the noble Baroness mentioned, particularly in horticulture but also in areas such as seafood. Our farming reforms are designed to support farmers to produce food sustainably and productively alongside delivering environmental improvements, which of course we all benefit from.

Photo of Lord Cunningham of Felling Lord Cunningham of Felling Chair, SLSC Sub-Committee B, Chair, SLSC Sub-Committee B

My Lords, will the Minister focus for a moment on the inexorable increase in the number of food banks being used by people who simply cannot afford to shop elsewhere? This is a real problem. Fortunately for the United Kingdom, people have so far been generous in supplying food banks, but even now we are reading and learning that some food banks are simply running out of food. This is a pretty serious state of affairs and I hope the Minister will assure the House that it is being looked at.

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The people who run food banks are some of the best people in our society, and any of us who have had anything to do with them are in awe of the work they do. Household income is a complex issue across many different sectors, and the Government’s job is to support households, as we are through our £37 billion investment. This includes £500 million to help with the cost of household essentials, including food, and brings the total funding and support to £1.5 billion. We certainly work with the food bank sector to make sure that for any problems it faces, if the Government can influence it, we ease those problems and help it do the work that it does.

Photo of Lord Curry of Kirkharle Lord Curry of Kirkharle Crossbench

One of the constraints on the production of home-produced fruit and vegetables has been the availability of labour. We have been receiving mixed messages from the Government on their attitude to seasonal workers. Can the Minister confirm what the current government policy is please?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

We are firmly supportive of the Institute for Agriculture and Horticulture that the noble Lord has been so instrumental in setting up and running. We want to make sure that we are improving the skills available and that those skills reflect how young people want to go into an industry now. They want portable qualifications that they can take into different areas of farming, agricultural production or the food industry. Improving skills is an absolute priority. We will not get the improvements in areas such as horticulture unless we improve the skills base. That is why we are determined to see organisations such as TIAH succeed.

Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, the poorest 20% of the population spend a higher proportion of their income on food. This makes them vulnerable to the effects of changing food prices. They are the very people who need to eat a good-quality, balanced diet to maintain their health. Will the Minister undertake to lobby his colleagues in other departments to ensure that they are aware of the health effects of insufficient food and nutrition and to ensure that both benefits and free school meals are extended to cover the gap in rising food prices?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The noble Baroness is absolutely right that food inflation adversely affects those on the lowest incomes and she is right to raise the issue of healthy food for children. We have increased the value of our Healthy Start vouchers to £4.25 a week and spent around £600 million a year ensuring an additional 1.25 million infants enjoy a free, healthy and nutritious meal at lunchtime following the introduction of the universal infant free school meal policy of 2014. I am very happy to keep her and other noble Lords abreast of other conversations we have in the context of food and the work happening across government to help families deal with the cost of living crisis.

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative

My Lords, could my noble friend assure us that, when he is helping to increase the productivity of farming in all its spheres, it will be done with the best science available, so that it will improve not only farming but nature at the same time?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

We operate on the basis of the best scientific evidence. Sometimes the evidence presented to Ministers can be conflicting, and we have to make a value judgment. Scientific advice underpins our new farming systems, and there is a determination to produce food sustainably and reverse the catastrophic declines in species that we have experienced in recent decades—which, as the Dasgupta review pointed out, has an economic cost as well as a cost to our environment.

Photo of The Bishop of Exeter The Bishop of Exeter Bishop

I thank the Minister for his responses here, but, given the current value of the pound, which is making our exports so attractive, what are His Majesty’s Government doing to seize this opportunity to grow our exports of British produce and therefore support and really encourage our fantastic and hard-working farmers?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The right reverend Prelate is absolutely right: there are areas for growth in our farming productivity. We want to see what we can produce. We are more than self-sufficient in produce such as lamb and poultry, but we want the opportunity to export as well. There are huge opportunities in horticulture, which is why we are working really hard with that sector to improve the productivity of food production right across the piece, and to look at the export opportunities that quality foods can achieve.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Labour

My Lords, the fact is that a small number of global food companies are making huge profits out of the current crisis, which is affecting not only consumers but farmers as well. Why do not the Government use the powers in the Environment Act to take action on supply chain regulation to make sure that everybody shares in the profits available there? Furthermore, why do not the Government take action to curb financial speculation in the food markets, because that is at the heart of the problem here?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am very happy to take up any specific cases where the noble Baroness feels that undue influence has been applied to the supply chain. We have complex supply chains in this country; she is quite right to state that some companies are based overseas. However, where we find problems we can take action, not just through the Environment Act but through the Groceries Code Adjudicator, which this Government also set up.

Photo of Baroness Boycott Baroness Boycott Crossbench

My Lords, the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit report last week found that the combined impacts of climate change as well as oil and gas prices have driven up food prices by £11.4 billion—that is £407 per household. Obviously, that is much more serious for those on lower incomes. Of that £407, £170 is due to climate change and £236 is due to oil and gas prices. That really tells us, if we ever need reminding, how much the food system is dependent on fossil fuels. Can the Minister agree and support the transition now to agroecological food systems? Can he give us any reassurance that the new ELMS subsidy system will be back on track with the announcement of the new Prime Minister?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I think that it is back on track with the existing Prime Minister, or the one that is still there as we speak. I assure the noble Baroness that the very basis of ELMS is an agroecological understanding of our soil standard, getting proper functioning ecosystems to support the food that we produce—so I can absolutely give her that assurance.