Reports on impact on consumers

Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:45 pm on 15th November 2018.

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‘(1) The Secretary of State shall lay before both Houses of Parliament reports on the impact of the provisions of this Act on—

(a) the availability in England of agricultural products produced within the United Kingdom,

(b) the cost to the consumer in England of agricultural products produced within the United Kingdom, and

(c) the health and welfare of consumers in England.

(2) The first report under subsection (1) shall be laid no later than 31 March 2020, and subsequent reports shall be laid no later than 31 March in each calendar year.

(3) “Agricultural product”, for the purposes of this section, means a product that falls within a sector listed in Part 2 of Schedule 1.’ —

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to report annually on the impact of the Bill’s provisions on food security, availability and affordability, and the impact on consumer health and welfare.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

We have done some good work today, Mr Wilson. The new clause deals with what we make no apology for saying is a deficiency in the Bill. It is more to do with the consumption of agricultural products than their production, but it is to do with affordability, accessibility and sustainability—or any more abilities that we might want to include. It came out of the oral evidence sessions, and in particular that in which Erik Millstone and Terry Marsden—if Tim Lang had been available, he would have been there as well—referred to the three pillars: ecological farming, environmental protection and the link to food security and through to public health. That should be the triad underwriting the whole Bill.

We have been critical of the fact that, even though we are considering a Bill on agriculture, food rarely gets a mention. Health has disappeared completely, although, as I have said on a number of occasions, the original consultation paper was called “Health and Harmony”. It is disappointing that health has played such a limited role in the way the Bill has been constructed.

Millstone and Marsden talked about the need for some vision for a post-EU food system. The vision should include a mix of ecosystems and social and public health challenges that we should meet, of which the central one is food security. I know that is an issue that seems to have disappeared from everyone’s radar—in the noughties it was the issue, and we got very worried, on the back of BSE, foot and mouth and some of the horrible avian diseases that came our way, about our lack of food security. We seem to have allowed it to disappear from our mind so we have not paid due account to where it should be in the Bill.

This is not just something for me to wax lyrical about. There is huge support from the public, and they want leadership on food security. The public want to know that they have safe, secure and, dare I say, good food, produced with the highest animal welfare standards while meeting all the environmental protection legislation that we should be meeting as part of the EU. There seems to be a view that it will all be right when we leave at the end of March, but if we could secure some of the issues through legislation—presupposing the Bill gets through the House of Lords—we would not have to worry. The obligations would have to be met if they were in statute.

This is an important new clause and one for which I hope to achieve a degree of support across the Committee. Green and farmers organisations talked a lot, both in the oral evidence sessions and especially in written evidence, about the availability of food, who should have access to it and the need to recognise food poverty. We were disappointed that new clause 1 was not selected, because it would have provided an interesting debate on food poverty and who has access to good-quality, affordable food. If we cannot address that in an agriculture Bill, where can we do it? The Government should have started with a food strategy. It would have been sensible to move from that food strategy to the Agriculture Bill. The legislation would follow what we wanted to do with food, crucial as it is. Sadly, that has not transpired, so we have to do it this way.

The new clause is not particularly onerous. It does not ask the Government to do anything other than to report, but report they should, so that we know that we are moving in the right direction. The Bill is all about environmental standards and about changing the nature of the payment system—public money for public goods. Nothing could be more fundamental than deciding on what food is produced and for whom, on whether they can afford it, and on whether it can be distributed more efficiently.

I do not want to say much more at this stage. It is important for us to have a debate on the issue and to have some clarity on the Government’s thinking. If we had had a food strategy plan, as we have the environment 25-year plan, we would not have had to suggest an amendment to the Bill at this stage of its consideration. I hope the Government will at least recognise why we tabled our new clause. This is widely popular with not just the organisations but the public, who expect us to be doing such things. I hope that the Government will accept the change.

On affordability, dare I say it, even the Chair of the Select Committee, Neil Parish has said that food supply and food security have been “taken for granted”, that that “needs to be highlighted” and that it is a lot “about home production”. If he says that, let us put it into the Bill so that we can show that what is widely accepted across the House is something on which we are prepared to legislate.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 5:00 pm, 15th November 2018

The hon. Gentleman highlights some important issues with the new clause but, as with new clause 8, I want to take this opportunity to explain to him the number of reports that we already produce. As I said earlier, DEFRA loves reports, and already collects a significant amount of information that is relevant to the availability of food and agricultural products.

For instance, our “Agriculture in the United Kingdom” report covers details of production volumes, production-to-supply ratios, and the origins of domestic consumption. The “Food Statistics Pocketbook” covers the economic, social and environmental aspects of the food that we eat; the data specifically track the origins of the food consumed in the UK. Regarding the cost of home-produced agricultural products, our family food survey has been running for over 75 years. It produces annual estimates of purchases by people in the UK and tracks food prices in the UK in real terms, including for products such as dairy, fruit, vegetables and meat. In addition, the FSA runs a survey on people’s food experiences, in particular whether they are finding it difficult to afford food.

Separately, we assess consumer attitudes to British food. For example, when surveyed, 60% of shoppers agree that they try to buy British food whenever they can. Next, we have DEFRA’s UK food security assessment, which is a regular assessment that takes place roughly every four to five years. It also analyses all aspects of food security, including production-to-supply ratios, resilience in the supply chain, affordability issues and consumer confidence.

It would be difficult to measure the specific impact of agriculture policy on the health and welfare of consumers, because many different factors drive people’s health outcomes and their relationship with food. However, other Departments already address that area. For instance, we already report on the overall health and welfare of consumers through Public Health England’s national diet and nutrition survey and the reports of its Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition. There is a plethora of existing reports, published predominantly by DEFRA but also by Public Health England, addressing all of the issues identified in the proposed new clause.

However, I understand that the sentiment underlying the proposed new clause, and the reports that the hon. Member for Stroud is requesting, is that there is not enough about food in the Bill. We have heard representations of a similar nature from Conservative Members, and as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, similar representations were also made on Second Reading. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we are giving a bit of thought to how we might address that concern during later stages of the Bill. I am sure that hon. Members who feel that there is not enough about food in the Bill—even though, as I have stated many times, I disagree—will welcome the fact that we have taken note of some of the points that have been raised.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Progress! We are being listened to. I welcome what the Minister has said. Again, this is not something that we have just cooked up—excuse the pun. [Interruption.] I have to keep Members awake somehow. Food is pretty important to an agriculture Bill. I do not know whether the Minister wants to tell me how he will address this concern; I hope it is on Report, not in the House of Lords, because it drives me mad when the Lords get all the credit for these wonderful improvements, even though we have worked blooming hard on the Committee. We get turned over regularly, and the Lords get a wonderful improvement in how food is dealt with in the wording of the Bill. It is important that we persuade people that, through the Bill, there has been a change for the better. If food is in the Bill, the Opposition will be much happier—and I will just hint to the Minister that we would like a bit of a mention of health as well. The link between the nature of the production process and food and health is so important.

I was going to press the proposed new clause to a vote, but the Minister has completely dumbfounded me by saying that the Government are going to listen to what the Opposition have been saying for the past couple of weeks. I will not press it to a vote now, but I genuinely hope that the Minister will bring something forward on Report so that we can get some credit, and we will then work with the Government to make sure that the Bill goes through more successfully than it otherwise would have. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned.—(Iain Stewart.)

Adjourned till Tuesday 20 November at twenty-five minutes past Nine o’clock.

Written evidence reported to the House

AB65 LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming)

AB66 LARA (the Motoring Organisations’ Land Access & Recreation Association)