Food Security

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:33 pm on 31st March 2022.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 3:33 pm, 31st March 2022

First of all, I thank Deidre Brock for setting the scene so very well. I do not agree with all her comments in relation to Brexit, of course; she knows that. However, I understand the importance of this debate. When she said to me, “Jim, can you come down to the debate?”, I said, “Yes, I definitely will, because I want to make a contribution”. That is because my constituency of Strangford is a food producer that produces way above what we use, which I will refer to later.

I am aware that we are perceived as a nation that has plenty of food; unlike some countries, where there is not enough food to go round, we have an ample supply. The UN has a goal of zero hunger by 2030 and produced a report to that effect. The UN has said:

“The latest edition of that report, which was published mid-2021, estimated that between 720 and 811 million people went hungry in 2020. High costs and low affordability also mean billions cannot eat healthily or nutritiously. Considering the middle of the projected range (768 million), 118 million more people were facing hunger in 2020 than in 2019”.

Those are the figures when it comes to food security, because I believe that our obligation is not just to ourselves and people back home—we have that obligation because we are constituency MPs—but to the rest of the world as well; we have a duty in that respect, too.

Other speakers have already touched on Ukraine; we know what the issues are very clearly. I understand that we want the war in Ukraine to finish as soon as possible, because that will mean getting some sort of normality back—not just in Ukraine, which is important, but to return to the food security we had before.

In Northern Ireland, we export 80% of our products across the UK and the world. I am thinking of Lakeland Dairies—the Minister might know many of these companies by name—which exports many products all over the world, and of Willowbrook Foods and Mash Direct. Those three companies alone, including those who work in them, probably create somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 jobs in my constituency.

I am aware of the global problem, but I am also aware of the problem in this country and in my constituency. I will give a couple of examples, if I can, to reflect where we are back home as well. One teacher spoke to me recently about getting the threshold of benefits lowered this year, because she was concerned about her pupils. She said that she could see that pupils from working families were under pressure. How could she see that? During covid, she sat alongside her children as they ate their lunch together—that is what they are doing, as they are not yet back in the assembly hall—and she noticed a pattern among a few children, in terms of the amount and quality of their lunch in tandem with the time that wages are paid. She said to me:

“Jim, I believe that some of my children are hungry during school and it breaks my heart.”

That teacher has since taken to bringing in a bowl of fruit for the children. They are allowed to pick a piece to snack on at lunchtime, if they want. The school cannot fund that, but she does it because she is burdened and that is commendable—commendable, but also lamentable. Luke Pollard referred to that, and others will.

No child in Strangford or anywhere across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland should be hungry, and a proportion of the population are now not entitled to benefits. Some are parents who have to tighten their belt when it comes to the groceries. My mother had four children, including me. She said that there were not enough potatoes in Comber to fill us. In Comber, they plant a lot of potatoes and they sell over Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the UK. I do not now show the excess of eating too many potatoes, but in my younger days perhaps I did—I used to be 17 stone, and am now a very trim 13 stone. I have got it down and will keep it that way, if I can.

This morning on the TV, people were talking about the prices in chip shops; this is an example. I am sure everyone saw it, but if they did not, try to watch it tonight if possible. Fish and chip shops are under incredible pressure. For every £100 they spent last year, they now spend £150 this year. That is a 50% increase, and some chip shops will not be here—that is the fact of it.

I understand that growing children are voracious, but when we realise that it is cheaper to buy four packets of crisps than a bunch of bananas, we understand why children are nutritionally challenged and some have challenging weights. This would not be a debate if I did not mention the Northern Ireland protocol, but I do so because we have special challenges because of it.

Some companies do not want the hassle of the documentation resulting from the protocol, but those that bother charge more per item—not per shipment—to cover it. That has led to less variety and less ability to shop for value. People take what is on offer and scrape the pennies together to cover it, so £1 items are now £1.29—we do not have to be mathematicians to work it out, but that is a 29% increase. Children pay the price of the Northern Ireland protocol with the sacrifice of high-quality, affordable and nutritious food and its availability.

I always ask the Minister, and I ask again: have discussions with Cabinet colleagues to address the issue. In Cabinet Office questions today, a colleague asked the question, and the Minister responded, but whatever the response we want, I believe in seeing the finished article, rather than the words.

Last year, the Trussell Trust provided some 79,000 parcels in total to children and adults in Northern Ireland. In all, 2.5 million food parcels were given out across the UK. I will finish with this comment: yes, we might be able to get access to food security as a nation, but families simply cannot do it all. The hungry child at lunch making do with half a sandwich and a yoghurt, while watching other children tuck into full meals, is a reality in my constituency and others. That needs to change radically. We have the capacity to do that, and we must have the will to do it as well.

Minister, I look to you—I always do, because you are a lady and a Minister who understands the issues—to work with colleagues to do the right thing and to make lives better.