Mr Speaker: In the light of the increased
interest that has been expressed in participating in this debate, I have decided
to impose an eight-minute limit on each Back-Bench speech. For the benefit of
the shadow Secretary of Stat -the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) -and
the Secretary of State, I remind them that there is no time limit on Front-Bench
speeches, but I hope that they will apply a certain self-denying ordinance in
order to enable more of their colleagues to contribute than would otherwise be
Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): I beg to
That this House notes that food prices rose by more than 4
per cent. over the last year and that an increasing number of families are
relying on foodbanks; is dismayed at Government delays to the Groceries Code
Adjudicator and that it has rejected recommendations by the Business, Innovation
and Skills Committee and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee to give
it teeth; believes that the Adjudicator should have the power to fine retailers
and that third party organisations should be able to report retailers for unfair
practices; calls on the Government to bring forward proposals for the Groceries
Code Adjudicator early in the next Parliament to ensure fairness across the food
supply chain; and further calls on the Government to work with the retail sector
to provide more responsible, transparent price promotions and clearer unit
pricing to offer genuine value-for-money for consumers.
sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will do their best to abide by
your strictures, Mr Speaker.
Friday, I visited a food bank in Bradford and met people who use its services.
One woman had fled her violent husband when she was eight months pregnant.
Another had left her husband but discovered that he had set up loans in their
joint names for which she was still liable. There were women there who had held
down high-powered jobs - one had been the personal assistant to the chief
executive of a large bank in Canary Wharf - but, through a combination of bad
decisions, bad luck and bad men, they had fallen on hard times.
the women apologised for not following politics, but said that she could not
afford a television licence. Another described how she had found herself
shouting at her children when they asked for a bit of jam on their bread, and
how she visited relatives at teatime to ensure that her children were fed, while
she herself went to bed hungry. Another described cooking tea for her children
and eating their leftover food. One woman told me how, the first time she
brought home a food parcel, she cried all night because she could not do
something as basic as feed her own children.
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): The hon. Lady has
mentioned food banks, and we have a very good one in Harlow. Can she explain why
the previous Government stopped jobcentres handing out vouchers for local food
banks? This Government have reversed that terrible decision.
23 Jan 2012 : Column 39
Mary Creagh: I do not know the answer to that
question. I am not sure whether it is the role of jobcentres to pass people on.
There is a question mark over whether it is appropriate for a Government agency
dealing with people's welfare and benefits to outsource the food element of that
to charities, so I throw that question back to the Government.
with the centre manager, Gareth Jones, to make up a food parcel. It contained
cereal, tins of beans, four tins of meat and four tins of fish - all nutritionally
balanced by a health visitor who advises the centre. The hardest part for me was
choosing the four treats. Would the children prefer a pot of honey or a treacle
sponge pudding, meringue nests or another pot of jam? Those are treats that we
all put into our shopping trolleys without a second thought.
told me that it was important to put in a mix of branded and non-branded goods,
so that when people opened the bags at home, they would feel valued. He told me
how he holds pampering sessions at which mums can enjoy a hot chocolate while
someone minds their children for half an hour. He described how the type of
person coming to the food bank had changed from the homeless and destitute to
the working poor. He said that families were referred to it by charities, social
services or even - as the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) said - the
jobcentre. When the state does not provide, the big society is left to pick up
Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): Much has
been made of the importance of food banks, but does my hon. Friend share my
concern that the New Life church in Billingham in my constituency has felt the
need to set up a food bank for the first time, to help local people who are
struggling? I support the church in doing so, but I am sure that she would agree
that these facilities should not be necessary. Is not this another illustration
of this Government's failure to address the needs of the most vulnerable people
in our society, who need food to eat?
Mary Creagh: I completely agree with my hon.
Friend and pay tribute to the church in his constituency. We are seeing a
proliferation in the number of food banks around the country and one of our
challenges to the Government is to ask them to map where those food banks are
and what social and economic policies are needed to tackle their proliferation
and hunger in our society.
Trussell Trust states that it now has 163 food banks around the country, with
one opening every week. Last year, its food banks fed 61,000 people, 20,000 of
whom were children, and this year it expects that figure to double.
Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth)
(Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that in Oldham a food bank has been
established for the first time? That was in the paper today. The vicar who set
it up said that the banks are not just for homeless people but for hard-working
families who are at crisis point. Reports by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and
other organisations show that such problems exist up and down the country. Does
my hon. Friend agree that the cuts and austerity are not working?
23 Jan 2012 : Column 40
Mary Creagh: I agree and it all comes back to the
social and economic failure of this Government. We are seeing these problems in
places that were never hotspots for homelessness, such as Oldham. We associate
them with our big cities and do not expect them in our smaller towns. There is a
food bank in Wakefield now, whereas previously there was not one.
Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): My hon.
Friend might be aware of the campaign conducted by Sainsbury's shortly before
Christmas, where the company invited customers to buy an extra item with their
shopping and pop it in a shopping basket so that it could be distributed to
needy households. I was shocked when I attended my local Sainsbury's to meet
many people who said that they would like to help but could not afford to buy
that extra item. Is not the idea that we can rely on charity to meet the need
bound to be too limited?
Mary Creagh: I agree with my hon. Friend. If
Sainsbury's is inviting consumers to put their hands in their pockets, it should
match that investment item for item, rather than simply adding it to its bottom
Kate Green: In fairness, I should say that
Sainsbury's matched every donation.
Mary Creagh: That is very good to hear.
Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Bridgend
food bank covers four of the 10 most deprived wards in Wales, so the service it
provides is critical. In its recent report, it said that the people who applied
for food there did so because of
- low income or ill health - repossession of their home - job loss
or desertion by the - breadwinner, or -
- house fire or unexpected benefit cuts. -
who go to food banks go for a variety of reasons, but is it not appalling that
in 2012, when we are celebrating the Olympics and spending millions of pounds,
people are still starving?
Mary Creagh: I agree. Charities such as the
Salvation Army and HelpAge are seeing an explosion in demand as incomes fall,
working hours are cut and prices rise.
Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): I know
that my hon. Friend, like me, comes from Coventry. Would she be surprised to
know that 35,000 children will now be on the poverty line between Coventry and
Warwickshire and does she think that that is an indictment of this Government's
failed policies? More importantly, many families are now struggling with
electricity prices, heating bills and so on, which is feeding through?
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order.
Interventions must be brief, as we are in a short debate with time limits on
Mary Creagh: I am very sorry to hear that my home
city of Coventry has 35,000 children living in poverty. I am sure the number was
similar when I was growing up there in the 1970s and 1980s and I am only sorry
that much of the good work we did in government is falling away and poverty is
23 Jan 2012 : Column 41
FareShare, which operates nationwide and works to
redistribute aid from the food industry to charities, says demand is growing
faster than supply. I pay tribute to both Sainsbury's and Brakes, which recycle
their in-date surplus to FareShare. It is important that the food is in-date so
that there is no risk associated with that food, which includes fresh vegetables
and, in particular, meat. Supermarkets could be doing much more to recycle food
waste to hungry people. FareShare estimates it gets 1% of supermarket food
waste, which prompts the question of where the other 99% is going. More of it
should be recycled to hungry children in this country, which is one of the
richest on earth. We can learn from food businesses such as Pret A Manger, which
delivers surplus sandwiches around its London stores in the evening. We recall
with horror the Tory proposals from Westminster council last year, when it
wanted to make food distribution illegal. I pay tribute to all those who fought
that proposal and protected people's basic human right to a square meal even in
the city of Westminster.
said that food is at the heart of everything his organisation does, but as my
hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) said, charities are tackling a
complex web of abuse, abandonment by the breadwinner, debt, unemployment,
non-payment of benefits and other equally serious issues such as house fires,
which she mentioned.
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): The hon. Lady
is talking about the situation in the UK, but does she accept that rising food
and commodity prices are an international phenomenon and that biofuels are
taking out of production a lot of agricultural land, which means that food
prices are rising not only in this country but around the world?
Mary Creagh: Commodity prices of certain things,
such as wheat, have remained stable over the past 20 years, whereas others have
risen. [Interruption.] Well, at the Oxford farming
conference I saw the US Department of Agriculture's figures on that. However,
the hon. Gentleman is right that there is an issue with commodity pricing,
particularly with the financialisation of that sector, which is leading to
increased volatility, making it harder for food producers to hedge and putting
on pressure. We can see from Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
figures that where we are self-sufficient we are more protected from those food
price spikes than where we rely on imports, which have to have the costs of
transporting those materials added on. Also, when our pound falls significantly
against other world currencies that puts those prices up.
people who food charities are seeing are no longer just the homeless and the
drug and alcohol users but the respectable mums and dads who have fallen on hard
times and the pensioners whose energy bills are so high that they cannot afford
to eat. It is an utter disgrace that, although we are the seventh-richest
country in the world, we are seeing thousands of people going to bed hungry at
night - many of them children. We need to look this issue squarely in the face. A
wave of invisible hunger is taking root in our cities, towns and villages. Those
charities are the canaries down the mine telling us that respectable
working-class and middle-class poverty is on the rise - and this is happening
before the housing benefit changes and universal credit come in.
23 Jan 2012 : Column 42
Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab):
Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to the work that Hull city council is doing to
reduce the cost of a school meal to £1 in recognition of the increasing cost
that families are having to meet, including those families just above the
benefit level for free school meals?
Mary Creagh: I pay tribute to Hull's Labour
council for that, as well as for the work it did when we were in government on
its free school meals pilot to make sure that children in Hull had access to a
free school meal. I know that that experiment has been carried out by Islington
council as well, and that it helps to ensure there is a wide take-up of free
school meals and that no stigma is attached to them.
Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): I am grateful to my
hon. Friend for mentioning the free school meals pilot, which Newham is
continuing for primary school children. It wanted to extend it to secondary
school children but simply could not afford to do so. One thing that I heard
from parents in that pilot was that school holidays were a particularly
difficult time because their children were burning up a lot of energy but there
simply was not the food or the money to feed those children properly during
holiday time. Again, that is a hidden form of food poverty.
Mary Creagh: I pay tribute to Newham's Labour
council and I find it amazing that, at a time when councils are experiencing a
28% cut to their revenue, they are still managing to subsidise school meals or,
as in Newham, to fund completely free meals. What a tragedy it is that that
scheme cannot be extended to secondary schools there. I will return to the issue
that my hon. Friend raises about school holidays.
Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree)
(Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend share my great concern that the removal of
extended schools money means that many schools cannot afford to put on breakfast
clubs? Many children who would previously have gone hungry if they had not got
breakfast through a breakfast club are returning to a situation in which they do
not have food in their stomachs, and so cannot learn and are not getting a
healthy start to the day.
Mary Creagh: It is a tragedy that both breakfast
clubs and after-school clubs are under threat. The chef Richard Corrigan did a
film for Sky called 'Richard Corrigan on Hunger' in which a lady who runs clubs
that are provided for by a charitable provider, Magic Breakfasts, talks about
children being admitted to hospital in the school holidays for malnutrition - that
comes back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn
Brown) about the challenge that school holidays pose for families - food
bills - and scurvy appearing in children of primary school age, which I find
Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): I am
listening with great interest to my hon. Friend's speech. Does she accept that
some of the problem is hidden, because really good, well meaning staff at
schools are finding ways of feeding children during the day? That is hiding some
of the scale of the problem.
23 Jan 2012 : Column 43
Mary Creagh: That is true, and I am glad that
there are so many passionate teachers - and passionate friends and neighbours, who
may suspect that all is not well. I remember people telling me, when I brought
forward my Children's Food Bill, that they would invite their neighbours and
friends in for tea on a Saturday and make sure that the children had as much
meat and fruit juice as they could get into them, because it became apparent
from the way that they were eating that they had not been fed since Friday
lunchtime. That point, from my constituency of Wakefield, has certainly stayed
addition, the Agricultural Wages Board is to be abolished. That is a
particularly nasty Government decision that has nothing to do with the deficit,
but will take £93 million from the sick pay and holiday pay of low-paid
agricultural, horticultural and food processing workers over the next 10 years.
That money will leach out of the rural economy, where those workers live?out of
local pubs, post offices and shops?depressing the rural economy when spending is
already squeezed. It costs more to live in the countryside, and the abolition of
the AWB could mean that we have in this country food workers who are unable to
buy the food that they produce. We know that those agricultural workers are the
most socially excluded people in our country. They are often migrants who speak
limited English. Their work is seasonal, short-term and low-skilled. They are
not in a trade union, and they move from county to county, picking daffodils in
Cornwall in February, and following the crop and fruit cycle across the
Morecambe bay tragedy in 2004, Labour created the Gangmasters Licensing
Authority to regulate labour providers in the food processing and packing, and
agricultural, horticultural, forestry and shellfish-gathering sectors. Our aim
was to ensure that workers received a minimum wage, decent accommodation, safe
transport, contracts and decent working conditions, yet the GLA?s latest annual
report reveals that, in the year to March 2011, it uncovered more than 800
workers being exploited in the UK. It prosecuted 12 companies and revoked the
licences of 33 gangmasters. In 2010, there were horrific reports of children as
young as nine picking onions in a field near Worcester. While the Government,
continuing with their red tape challenge, are deciding on the future powers of
the GLA, we say: ?We will work with you to stamp out modern-day slavery, people
trafficking, and serious organised crime, wherever they occur in these
government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn)
brought stakeholders together to look at the risks to our food security, and the
challenges of feeding a growing global population sustainably. The result was
Food 2030, the first Government food strategy since world war two. Peter
Kendall, president of the National Farmers Union, has described how that
strategy has been left on the shelf, and has been relegated to
?a one-line objective in the business plan?
current Government. Labour gathered stakeholders together in September last year
to look at that food strategy. We believe that we must not lose sight of the
direction that it sets out, and we are pleased that the Government have set up
their green food project, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. We
look forward to it reporting this summer.
23 Jan 2012 : Column 44
government, along with many hon. Friends who are seated behind me today, I
campaigned for improvements to children?s diets through the Children?s Food
Bill. That led to nutritionally balanced school dinners, an end to junk-food
vending machines in schools, and lessons on cooking and growing food as part of
key stage 3.
Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Does my hon.
Friend accept that the Government?s cuts to Sure Start have made that problem
worse, because much of that educational knowledge about what is good food to
give to children has been lost?
Mary Creagh: I agree. Sure Start has been an
amazing tool in the fight for good food in families, and for cooking lessons.
The 20% cut imposed by the Government centrally can only make that more
challenging for those dedicated workers.
Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): Does my hon.
Friend share my concern that the Secretary of State for Education has decreed
that free schools and academies do not have to meet the same nutritional
standards in school meals as state schools?
Mary Creagh: Yes, it is slightly bizarre that
that should be the case. I do not understand why, having battled so hard to
secure minimum standards across the sector, the Secretary of State should think
it acceptable to water them down, unless it is about saving money in pursuit of
an ideological objective, but that could surely never be the Government?s
mentioned ?Richard Corrigan on Hunger? and the hospitalisation of children.
People also talk in that programme about lunch boxes containing last night?s
cold chips and ketchup. In government, we set up the School Food Trust, whose
latest research shows that the average local authority-catered school dinner has
gone up by 5p in the past year to £1.88 in primary schools, and by 4p to £1.98
in secondary schools. Councils are forced to charge more as their Government
funding has been cut. We have heard today about councils that are doing their
best to prioritise children?s nutrition. Those price rises could force parents
to take their children out of school-meal provision and make do with a lunch
box. If someone has three children who do not qualify for free school meals, £6
a day or £30 a week is an awful lot of money to find.
be a defining issue for this century. The price spike in food commodities in
2008 showed that the era of cheap food may not be with us much longer. Increases
in commodity prices?oil, fertiliser and pesticides?all contributed to
year-on-year food price inflation of 6% last September: the second-highest
increase in the EU, apart from Hungary. That 6% added £233 to the food bill of a
family of two adults and two children. Food inflation, currently at 4%, remains
higher than most pay rises that people will receive this year. As prices rise,
people are eating less beef, lamb and fish, and more bacon. People are shopping
around and trading down, and there is less supermarket loyalty. Figures from
DEFRA reveal a 30% fall in the consumption of fresh fruit and veg by the poorest
fifth of families since 2006. Those families are eating just 2.7 of their
five-a-day fruit and veg.
23 Jan 2012 : Column 45
We need a
better understanding of what is driving up food prices, and how costs and risk
are transferred across the supply chain. However, shopping is confusing and
labels do not always show the true costs. Supermarkets are not required legally
to show the unit cost on special offers, so they give the price pre-discount,
which makes it impossible to compare prices on the shelf; or they give the price
per unit of fruit, rather than by 100 grams, making comparisons impossible. We
want supermarkets to be more transparent in their labelling to ensure that
shoppers get the best deal. We want them to help people to eat healthily. Our
traffic light system was rejected by significant players in the food industry,
who have turned their back on what consumers want and need to make healthy
We want a
fair and competitive supply chain for growers, processors and retailers. The
Competition Commission in 2008 found that there was an adverse effect on
competition from unfair supply chain practices. It recommended that supermarkets
with a turnover of more than £1 billion a year should be prevented from imposing
retrospective discounts and from changing terms and conditions for suppliers.
That leads to an unfair spread of risk and cost down the grocery supply chain,
and to short-termism in relationships. [Interruption.] I thought I heard
a phantom sedentary intervention, but that is not the case. We wanted a
voluntary approach, but the supermarkets were unable to agree a way forward.
That is why Labour in government secured cross-party agreement for a groceries
code ombudsman to ensure a fair deal for farmers and producers. This
Government?s delays and procrastination mean that the adjudicator will probably
not be up and running until 2014-15.
Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): I note that the
motion expresses dismay at the Government?s delay, yet it asks for the groceries
code adjudicator to be introduced in the next Parliament, rather than in the
next parliamentary year, which I assume is a drafting error. Leaving that aside,
given the fact that the first Competition Commission report was in 2000, and the
Competition Commission report to which the hon. Lady refers was completed in
2008, what word other than ?dismay? would she use to describe the Labour
Government?s response to that report?
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. May
I remind everyone in the Chamber that the debate ends at 7 pm? There is already
a time limit of eight minutes on Back-Bench speeches. Interventions should
therefore be short, and I hope opening speeches will not be overly long.
Mary Creagh: I quote back to the hon. Member for
St Ives (Andrew George):
?Every week the government fails to act, farmers are finding
themselves in more difficulty.?
what he said. The supermarkets were insistent. We wanted an ombudsman. The
supermarkets asked for a voluntary approach. It is right to try a voluntary
approach first, which we did, but it did not work. This is the anti-regulation
Government, but that approach failed. What we need now is action from his
commission recommended the powers to levy significant financial penalties, but
the Government are recommending that only in reserve powers in the Bill,
23 Jan 2012 : Column 46
not on the face of the Bill, meaning that fines for anti-competitive
practices are even further away than 2015. The
quoted an executive of a large supermarket chain saying that
?it is an adjudicator rather than an ombudsman, which
suggests that it is a watered-down role.?
Suppliers can complain anonymously, but they are liable
for full cost recovery if the adjudicator finds that the complaint was vexatious
or wholly without merit. The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee
recommended that whistleblowing from within retailers should also be grounds for
launching an investigation, which BIS Ministers are currently considering.
this anonymous salad grower who works with the Food and Drink Federation:
of a supermarket?
?have expected us to support their current pricing campaign
in store by contributing with reduced price returns, to maintain their margin
demands. It has been made very clear that lack of support could be seen as
showing no commitment to??
?and the potential loss of business, forcing us to drop our
prices and support the activity. Interestingly none of this has been put in
suggests anti-competitive practices across the sector. If there is bad treatment
at the top of the pyramid, that sets the tone for treatment all the way down the
food chain, right down to the workers in the field. What we want is culture
change across the food industry.
Mark Tami: My hon. Friend raises an important
point. In the case of many buy one, get one free offers, the cost is not borne
by the supermarket. It puts pressure on the supplier, because the supermarket is
saying, in effect, ?Unless you fund this, we will move the contract somewhere
else.? In the end, it is often the workers in that company who suffer.
Mary Creagh: My hon. Friend makes a good point.
Such offers increase the volume of sales, but often reduce the margin. That
places enormous capital and liquidity costs on small companies in order to fund
that as they wait for the money to come in from the supermarket.
Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I cannot allow
that to stand. As somebody who worked for a supermarket chain for 13 years, may
I tell the hon. Lady that suppliers used to fall over themselves to come to
retailers and ask to do buy one, get one free offers or three for the price of
two offers, because it was a good marketing tool for them? When I worked for
Asda, we used to ask them whether we could have every-day low prices instead of
all those offers, but it was the suppliers who were pushing buy one, get one
free offers. The idea that supermarkets are forcing them is just guff.
Mary Creagh: That is interesting. I am sure the
hon. Gentleman will have a range of suppliers who will appear in the press
tomorrow to say that the groceries code adjudicator is not required. No doubt
they will make their thoughts very clear through the Food and Drink Federation,
which represents the sector. However, I will not hold my breath for that. I like
23 Jan 2012 : Column 47
Asda, but I am not sure that it represents the sunlit uplands that the hon.
Gentleman remembers from his happy times working there.
the Government to act swiftly on the grocery ombudsman. That will lead to less
pressure on suppliers and an end to unfair competition, and greater price
transparency in the supermarket sector. We want supermarkets to commit to
clearer price labelling, particularly on those buy one, get one free promotions.
If they do not do so voluntarily, Government should act. We call on supermarkets
to commit to sending their in-date food waste to charities such as FareShare,
which will ensure that it goes to a good home. We want supermarkets to publish
the amount of food they waste, and if they do not do so the Government should
take action in the next waste review. We want supermarkets to commit to
recycling more of that food to hungry children and less to landfill.
on DEFRA Ministers to work with stakeholders to define food poverty, identify
the extent and scale of the problem and commit to tackling it. We have heard
about the extent of the problem today and the obscenity of food being wasted
while people are going hungry in our towns and cities, but anecdotes are not
evidence. We ignore the perfect storm of rising food prices, falling incomes and
food poverty at our peril.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and
Rural Affairs (Mrs Caroline Spelman): Let me start by welcoming the
opportunity to debate this important matter. World food prices are volatile and
the Government should do all they can to help families, but if we are to have a
grown-up debate we need to start by acknowledging what the Government can and
cannot do. Contrary to the rather Dickensian impression the hon. Lady seeks to
convey, food price increases are not a direct result of the Government?s
political composition, and a Government cannot be held responsible for what the
hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) cited: the abandonment of families by the
main breadwinner, the misfortune of a house fire or domestic violence
perpetrated in the home. Food prices are the product of many complicated and
interrelated factors, many of which are globally driven.
to have a fully informed debate, I will turn first to the specific issue of the
groceries code adjudicator, which this Government, unlike the previous one, are
introducing, and put the current situation in context. No one underestimates the
difficulties families face in balancing household budgets when bills are high.
As a veteran of the weekly shop, I see at first hand the impact of food price
rises, as I am sure many of us do. Let us set the record straight. Last summer
food price inflation overtook general inflation, but by November the reverse was
true. In the coalition Government?s first year in office, food prices increased
by less than the average annual increase in Labour?s last five years. Between
2007 and 2008 food prices rose twice as fast as they did between 2010 and 2011.
Although the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) has a new-found interest in
food prices, which is to be welcomed, it comes a little late.
Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): The right hon.
Lady says that food prices are not rising as fast as they
23 Jan 2012 : Column 48
had been, but does she acknowledge that wages have not gone up over that
period, which means that people are suffering huge food poverty?
Mrs Spelman: I am challenging the hon. Member for
Wakefield to consider the fact that during her party?s 13 years in power, which
saw steep rises in food prices, it introduced neither a groceries code
adjudicator nor the other measures called for in the motion. Despite claiming
today that the adjudicator would be some sort of panacea, the hon. Lady seems to
feel that doing nothing about this for 13 years is a credible basis on which to
criticise us for not having completed the process in just over 18 months.
Philip Davies: I must say that this is bizarre.
My right hon. Friend says she is concerned about rising food prices, but she is
agitating to bring in a groceries code adjudicator that, if it will have any
influence at all, will only be able to put prices up further. The two things are
Mrs Spelman: If we thought that the groceries
code adjudicator would put prices up, there would not be the current cross-party
support across the House for creating it.
important point is that we need a degree of humility and candour about the
Labour party?s record. As has been noted, Labour has shown extraordinary candour
in the wording of its own motion. We must be clear that the hon. Member for
Wakefield is calling on the coalition Government to introduce the adjudicator
early in the next Parliament. I am not sure whether she knows the outcome of the
next election, but the motion clearly indicates that she has written off
Labour?s prospects of forming the next Government?she is certainly not alone in
that. It is always good to start a debate with an issue on which we can make
common cause, but the good news for her is that we will not wait until the next
Parliament to introduce the adjudicator.
Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): The
Secretary of State is keen to tie down the timing of the introduction of the
grocery code adjudicator, so when will she commit to do so?
Mrs Spelman: As I am sure Opposition Front
Benchers are aware, the lead Department on the grocery code adjudicator, both
for the Government and for the Opposition, is of course the Department for
Business, Innovation and Skills, but we have been very clear as a Government
that we are fully committed to introducing the adjudicator as soon as
fair competition is the key to a healthy market, and it is right that the
adjudicator should make sure the market is working in the best long-term
interest of consumers. In this Session, we published a draft Bill to allow
pre-legislative scrutiny. It was a popular measure, welcomed on both sides of
the House, and as the Leader of the House said on 15 December 2011:
?There will be a second Session of this Parliament, and the
Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill is a strong candidate for consideration as part
of it.??[Official Report, 15 December 2011; Vol. 537, c. 937.]
is no delay, but it has to be done right.
23 Jan 2012 : Column 49
important to bear it in mind that, overall, the Competition Commission found
that retailers are providing a good deal for their customers, and they should
not be prevented from securing the best deals and passing the benefits on to
their customers, but, similarly, we are clear that they should be required to
treat their suppliers lawfully and fairly.
pre-legislative scrutiny, the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee
suggested that third parties should be allowed to lodge complaints. Our position
remains that it is more appropriate for complaints to be lodged directly or
indirectly by suppliers, but we are open to considering further arguments on
extending the range of those who can trigger an investigation. That is the
benefit of pre-legislative scrutiny. We recognise that third parties, including
trade associations, have a valuable role to play, so the adjudicator will be
fully free to gather evidence from trade associations once an investigation has
draft Bill provides the adjudicator with the power to name and shame retailers
that are in breach of the code, and we believe that, in a highly competitive
market, retailers will not risk reputational damage from unacceptable behaviour
towards suppliers. If negative publicity proves insufficient, however, the draft
Bill contains a reserve power for the adjudicator to impose financial penalties,
subject to an order made by the Business Secretary but without the need for
the House agrees, therefore, that these measures represent significantly more
progress than was made under the previous Government and should be generally
Andrew George: It has been suggested, in
particular during the intervention by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip
Davies), that the adjudicator would introduce inflation to the food market, but
the Competition Commission itself, which is after all independent on the issue,
made the situation quite clear, stating that
?if unchecked, these practices??
practices that the Secretary of State and others have described?
?would ultimately have a detrimental effect on
quite clear that they would have a detrimental effect on prices for
Mrs Spelman: I thank my hon. Friend for his
intervention. The Competition Commission clearly keeps the practices of
retailers under scrutiny and sees a benefit in independent adjudication of
fairness in the supply chain.
turn to other points in the motion. The hon. Member for Wakefield espouses the
virtues of the Healthy Start programme, which this Government have continued,
and no one will argue with the role of food banks, which are an excellent
example of the big society. They are not new, as churches have been
redistributing food in that way down the decades, and we are four-square behind
organisations such as FareShare, which do excellent work in the field.
making it easier for shoppers, this Government have wasted absolutely no time in
working with the food industry to simplify food date labelling. Last autumn I
made it clear that one date should appear on the label, so that there is no
confusion between ?use by?, ?use
23 Jan 2012 : Column 50
before?, ?display until? or ?store until?. There should be one date: if the
product is perishable, the label should state ?use by?, for food safety; if it
is not, the label should state ?best before?. In that way, we can certainly help
people to reduce the amount of food that goes to waste.
Kate Green: I am shocked to hear the Secretary of
State say that we should welcome food banks. It is a social policy failure that
families are reliant on food handouts because they do not have enough money to
afford a healthy diet for their children.
Mrs Spelman: I gather that the hon. Lady would
like them banned.
Kate Greenindicated dissent.
Mrs Spelman: Well, she cannot have it both
Kate Green: Will the Minister give way?
Mrs Spelman: No.
get back to some facts. Retail food price inflation reached 6.9% in June last
year and currently stands at 3.8%. In real terms, food prices have stayed at
about the same level since the start of 2009, notwithstanding the fact that food
price inflation has fallen below the general rate of inflation. I accept that we
need to help those on the lowest incomes, who are spending more of their budgets
Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con):
Does the Secretary of State agree that the major contributory factor to food
price inflation is energy and fuel price inflation? They are indelibly
Mrs Spelman: Shortly, my hon. Friend will hear me
expand correctly on the analysis of what is driving food price inflation.
important to remember that in 2010 the average family spent 11.5% of its
household budget on food. The figure is greater for low income families, at
15.8%, but it is coming down; the 2010 figures are 1% lower than two years
previously. That is a very important fact?the trend is that household
expenditure on food in the lowest income families is coming down.
Luciana Berger: I do not know whether the
Secretary of State has seen the figures released by the OECD last week. They
showed that in the UK food prices rose by 4% in the last year, which is 0.7%
above the EU average.
Mrs Spelman: The hon. Lady needs to understand
the contributory factors. The depreciation of sterling makes imports of food in
other currencies stronger than ours more expensive. It is important to read the
figures in the context of exchange rates and the other factors that drive up
Government are, of course, actively finding ways to help mitigate the rises. But
the Government cannot do it all, and they should not pretend that they can.
Since the removal of production linked support in 2005, crops and livestock are
traded on a global market. It is those markets that dictate food prices. As has
23 Jan 2012 : Column 51
pointed out, the key drivers of domestic retail food price inflation include
world agricultural commodity prices.
to have to tell the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), but if she is to
have this brief she needs to learn that the wheat price has not been stable; it
has fluctuated in recent years from £60 a tonne to more than £200 a tonne. There
are also oil prices and exchange rates. In 2008, although the price of wheat
fell in dollar terms, it increased in sterling terms because of the relative
weakness of sterling to the dollar. To understand the causes of food price
inflation, one has to analyse correctly the underlying drivers.
commodity prices are the key driver and we are working hard internationally to
ensure the better functioning of commodity prices at the global level. That, in
turn, will affect food prices at home. The depreciation of sterling has made
dollar-denominated commodities more expensive. Furthermore, global weather
extremes have caused shortages that drive prices up.
Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I assure the
Secretary of State that the Opposition fully understand which things Governments
can intervene on and which they cannot. What is she doing to help the poorest
families in the country to make sure that they get enough food and do not have
to rely on food banks? How many food banks would she regard as a measure of
success, and what is she aiming to do by the end of her stay in office?
Mrs Spelman: The hon. Lady clearly was not
listening to what I said about the continuation of the Healthy Start campaign,
for example. Of course, in any big society, there is no finite amount of
contribution that each of us might make to the more vulnerable; there is no need
to put a limit on it.
Kwasi Kwarteng (Spelthorne) (Con): Will my right
hon. Friend comment on the moves that the Government are making, such as
freezing council tax and cutting fuel duty? That has made general inflation a
much more manageable phenomenon for ordinary families.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Not at
this precise point; the right hon. Lady is speaking to the motion.
Mrs Spelman: That is a shame, Madam Deputy
Speaker, because there is a long list of things relevant to household budgets;
there was a wider definition of that earlier. Freezing council tax is but one
example of what frees up the budget to buy more food.
year, the Government?s Foresight report on the future of food and farming
concluded that Governments across the world must take action now to ensure that
a rising global population can be fed. It is a chilling fact that in only 13
years there will be 1 billion more mouths to feed on this planet. Increasing
demand for water, land and energy means that food security is one of the world?s
greatest challenges. The report identified five challenges for all nations to
act on: balancing future demand and supply; ensuring that there is adequate food
price stability and protecting the most vulnerable from volatility; achieving
global access to food and
23 Jan 2012 : Column 52
ending hunger; managing the contribution of the food system to mitigating
climate change; and maintaining biodiversity in our ecosystems. To take on those
challenges, we need international reform. To address global food security, we
need an increase in agricultural productivity, which means a move away from
subsidy. To address the risk of climate instability disrupting production
patterns, we must have open world trading systems.
last year, G20 Agriculture Ministers met and agreed to the creation of an
agricultural market information system, which aims to stabilise food price
volatility through better transparency in the marketplace. In November, I
attended the climate change conference and helped the South African Agriculture
Minister to get agriculture included in the work stream for the next climate
change convention. We are now preparing for Rio plus 20, where we will push for
international policies to help the most vulnerable in our society. We will lobby
for the sustainable intensification of agriculture, climate-smart agriculture
and the reduction of post-harvest losses. The Afghan Minister whom I met in
Berlin this weekend at green week said that the reduction of harvest losses
would make one of the greatest contributions to combating famine.
challenges present an opportunity for the UK, and we need to be the first out of
the blocks and embrace it. British food producers must make the most of
international markets. That is why I have announced that I will publish an
action plan at the end of the month to help export the best of British food and
drink across the world. It is through global trade that the UK can secure its
future food supply and help keep food prices down. We already contribute to
global food supply. We provide 2% of global wheat exports, 4% of global barley
exports and 1% of global cereal exports. That demonstrates that the UK has a
major role in food production. By expanding production and exports, we can
contribute to the overall economic recovery.
and farming industry is a high performer with great potential. The food chain
contributes £88 billion per annum to the economy, which is 7% of GDP. It is
responsible for 3.7 million jobs. The Government are acting across the food
chain to stimulate growth, facilitate international trade and drive fair
competition, because a thriving and competitive economy, where our products are
freely traded on an international market, will deliver resilient, stable and
affordable food supplies to our consumers.
Government are working with industry and environmental partners to see how we
can reconcile our goals of improving environmental protection and increasing
food production. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wakefield for welcoming
the green food project. The Government are spending £400 million on food and
farming research, which addresses productivity, environmental performance and
resilience along the food chain.
is under any illusion about the pressures that high food prices put on all our
constituents. However, it would be wrong to pretend that there is a ?silver
bullet? solution when there is not.
Julie Hilling: I have not heard in the Secretary
of State?s contribution any mention of what she will do for the most vulnerable
in this country, who are dependent on a hugely increased number of food banks.
What will she do to feed those families who cannot feed
23 Jan 2012 : Column 53
Mrs Spelman: I am sure that the hon. Lady would
accept that the responsibility for helping the most vulnerable people in our
society to have more disposable income to provide food for their families goes
beyond my Department. She must take account of other things such as our freezing
council tax, cutting fuel duty, cutting income tax, taking 1.1 million low-paid
people out of tax, increasing child tax credit, taking action on energy prices
and helping with the cost of rail travel.
groceries code adjudicator will not be a panacea in the face of rising food
prices. The adjudicator has a role to play in delivering a robust check on
fairness between supplier and retailer; that is why we are introducing it.
However, limiting food price inflation rests on multiple factors, from energy to
exchange rates, and not least the core issue of supply and demand. The
Government are not only alert to those factors but actively finding
opportunities to influence them. We are working internationally to ensure that a
growing population can be fed, we are using the challenges of food production to
kick-start growth and competitiveness here in the UK, and through the green food
project we are addressing the tensions inherent in growing more food at less
cost to the environment.
steps we are taking will produce the market conditions required to deliver good
quality, affordable food for households throughout the UK. This debate is
important because it is about the household budget and the cost of living. The
Government have not sat idly by. We are directly helping in all kinds of
ways?the freezing of council tax, the cutting of fuel duty, and so on. Those are
all measures that Labour refused to take when it was in power, despite running
up the biggest peacetime deficit in our country?s history. This is a Government
who are on the side of hard-pressed families, this is a Department that is on
the side of British farmers and food producers, and this is an issue on which
Labour has no credibility and no alternative. I urge the House to reject the
Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab):
Listening to the Secretary of State?s final comments, I thought for a moment
that I had stumbled into some sort of parallel universe, because I did not
recognise any of her claims about what the Government are doing. She talked
about the freeze in council tax. First, some of the families we are talking
about are so poor that they do not pay council tax. Secondly, in Stoke-on-Trent,
as in other areas, the council has been so hammered by the cuts in support from
national Government to local government that it cannot accept the bribe of a 2%
freeze and will have to make increases to try to get back some of the money that
has been ripped away from it.
welcome this debate because it provides the other side of the ?heat or eat?
coin. We recently discussed in this House the situation whereby people have to
make the choice between heating their home and having food to eat. Sadly, many
people do not have that choice because they cannot afford to heat their homes or
to eat properly. Many families cannot afford to put proper food in their
stomachs, let alone heat their homes.
problem is going to get worse. To be fair to the Secretary of State, she touched
on this area, to a small extent. Back in the 1960s, ?70s and ?80s, we had cheap
oil and we encouraged farmers, not only in this country
23 Jan 2012 : Column 54
but globally, to turn that oil into food by using machinery?whether milking
pumps, tractors or heated greenhouses?to produce more food. The UK imports a
huge amount of food?even things that we grow well in this country, such as
tomatoes. We seem to have a fascination with buying imported tomatoes even
during our tomato season. On imported foodstuffs, we bring into this country a
large amount of soy to feed our cattle because of the ever-increasing demand for
more milk production. As a result, oil prices are rising and will continue to
rise further. As the years go by, the built-in link between the price of oil and
the price of food means that the food prices that we have been used to will
continue to increase as the price of oil goes up.
to wean our farmers off oil. Back in the ?70s, companies decided to produce ever
better strains of seeds. That was linked to the oil industry, because in order
to grow those better strains, the farmers needed fertilisers linked to oil. As
the weeks, months and years stretch out ahead of us, if we cannot reduce the
constant link with oil, we will face an inexorable increase in the cost of food.
We need to act now, and the Government need to act now, to start to break that
banks such as that at St Clare?s, Meir Park, in my constituency are doing
fantastic work and helping the vulnerable in our society, and they have started
only in the past year. In the 13 years of the Labour Government, for which the
Secretary of State tried to berate us, they were not needed. I would like to see
a country in which there are no food banks, of course?everybody would?but while
we have the need for them, we must have them.
Julie Hilling: Is my hon. Friend aware that the
Trussell Trust estimates that 60,000 people got food from food banks last year,
and that 100,000 will this year? It estimates that by 2015, half a million
people will depend on them.
Robert Flello: Absolutely, my hon. Friend is
correct: that is the scale of the problem that we face. By 2014-15 half a
million people will be looking to food banks, so how many people will by 2020,
and how many by 2025, if action is not taken soon?
do not want to go to food banks. They do not think on a Saturday afternoon, ?Oh,
I know, let?s pop to the food bank.? They do it because they have no other
choice. They are people with pride and self-esteem, but they think, ?Well, hang
on, it?s that or starve.? What a contradiction it is that at the same time we
are throwing away 7.2 million tonnes of food every year. It is unbelievable that
we are wasting food on such a level. It is appalling, and a national
that happening? The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) rallied to the
defence of the supermarket industry. I will make further points about that
industry in a moment, but when it has food promotions such as two for one or
three for one, it causes problems for families at the poorest end of the scale,
who do not have a freezer and cannot store so much food. However, most of the
problem comes from people such as?dare I say it??us in the House. Mea culpa: at
the end of Christmas and its excesses, we look at our own fridge or freezer and
see that it is still full of food that was not needed. That food ends up going
in the bin, at the same time as people?[Interruption.] Well, actually, I
do not throw food away, but there are people who do.
23 Jan 2012 : Column 55
Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): You don?t look
as though you throw it away.
Robert Flello: My hon. Friend is quite right.
However, let us not lose track of the serious point.
Philip Davies: Will the hon. Gentleman make it
clear to hard-pressed families in his constituency whether he is in favour of
supermarkets and retailers offering buy-one-get-one-free offers, or against? I
am sure they would be very interested to know.
Robert Flello: I am delighted that the hon.
Gentleman asks that question. I would like the goods on the shelves to be at a
fair price so that families can afford to buy one of something and do not have
to go for a two-for-one offer to get the best value. I know that he is perhaps
still an unpaid spokesperson for a supermarket.
a problem with the desire for perfect food, too. Our farmers are having to waste
a lot of food because it does not meet some of the supermarkets? requirements
for perfect food.
Laura Sandys (South Thanet) (Con): Will the hon.
Gentleman give way?
Robert Flello: I will not, because I have less
than two minutes to go. If there is time at the end of my speech I will allow
the hon. Lady to intervene.
point is about the groceries code adjudicator. We need somebody who holds the
supermarkets to account, because whether we are talking about the past two
years, the previous 13 years?as the Secretary of State tries to shift the blame
on to our side?or the past 20, 25 or 30 years, the supermarkets have been making
money left, right and centre, hand over fist, but at the same time our farmers
have told us that they are struggling. The number of farmers now is a fraction
of what it was 20 or 30 years ago, and customers and consumers?our
constituents?are suffering. We need the adjudicator. If the Secretary of State
has a problem with the need for an adjudicator, the answer is quite simple: if
the adjudicator is appointed and does not have any work to do, perhaps the post
will have been a success because the supermarkets have realised that the game is
debate is not about those of us who are in the comfortable position of being
able to go out and buy what we want in the supermarket. It is about the poorest
in our society, who may not have freezers and fridges, and cannot buy in bulk,
or buy food when it is on offer. They are the ones who work and live from week
to week?sometimes from day to day. The House and the Secretary of State need to
provide a positive steer, to ensure that the most vulnerable families are looked
after, helped and supported by all the machinery of government.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): I
congratulate the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) on calling the debate.
In welcoming it, I draw attention to my declaration in the Register of Members?
Financial Interests. However, there are many other issues that the hon. Lady
could have mentioned, which exercise those who live in rural communities. I
recognise that Wakefield may not be quite as rural as Thirsk, Malton
23 Jan 2012 : Column 56
and Filey, but if we consider poverty among the farming community over the
past 10 years, particularly in small upland farms, it is fair to say that
farmers are not in a position to employ many outside their own family. Normally
the farmer, his wife and his family work on the farm, and that has led to
diversification when possible. In some of the most successful examples, such as
Shepherds Purse cheeses and Get Ahead Hats, the wife has diversified or gone out
to work separately.
Member for Wakefield also failed to tackle the increasingly important issue of
farm-gate prices, as opposed to rising supermarket prices. I would like to draw
attention to that. In my constituency, I can point to pockets of rural poverty
in the Hambleton district. In the Ryedale district there is a poverty gap, for
those on low incomes, between their low wages and the particularly high cost of
farm business income report showed that the cost of fertiliser and animal feed
rose by nearly 30% each in 2010-11, the last year for which figures are
available. That means that the livestock and horticulture sectors have suffered
falls year on year. I draw the attention of the hon. Member for Wakefield to the
fact that livestock farm income fell by 29% in lowland areas and 19% in upland
areas, with horticulture income down 27%.
Lady did not consider exchange rates, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary
of State mentioned. What if the unthinkable were to happen and the euro
failed?or what if even one member country fell out of the euro? The question
being asked coming up to spring in auction marts, particularly in the north of
England, where most of the lambs are exported, especially to France, is: how and
in what currency will farmers be paid? They are starting to wonder whether they
will be paid at all. We had the opportunity to cover some of those issues in
today?s debate, and I am disappointed that we did not.
welcome the debate, but, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State
explained, we are looking at the high cost of fuel as well as the increased
costs of feedstuffs and fertiliser. As the Chancellor of the Exchequer has said
on so many occasions, oil prices are set globally. The price of cereals and many
farm commodities are set internationally.
to focus on the role of supermarkets, and particularly the part of the motion
that deals with the groceries code adjudicator. I draw the House?s attention to
a successful one-off evidence session that the Environment, Food and Rural
Affairs Committee held. The hon. Member for Wakefield has included kind words
about the Committee in her motion. At the evidence session I was very moved by a
category of people to whom, again, the hon. Lady did not refer?individual fruit
and vegetable growers and horticultural growers, who have the loosest possible
arrangement with supermarkets and virtually no protection. We were shocked to
realise that their contracts could be terminated at a moment?s notice. They need
protection and to be able to make a complaint anonymously. As we said in the
letter that we submitted to the Chairman of the Business, Innovation and Skills
?For many years there has been a ?climate of fear? in the
groceries supply chain. We therefore endorse the provision in the draft Bill
that will allow the Adjudicator to receive anonymous complaints from direct or
indirect suppliers about retailers breaking the Groceries supply
23 Jan 2012 : Column 57
some good can come out of today?s debate and urge my right hon. Friend the
Secretary of State to use her good offices to put pressure on the Secretary of
State for Business, Innovation and Skills; that is the responsible
commend all the Committee?s conclusions without hesitation, but I shall draw
attention specifically to two of them.
Philip Davies: My hon. Friend will know that the
vast majority of suppliers to supermarkets are, by definition, huge
organisations?multinational companies such as Mars, Coca-Cola, and Proctor and
Gamble. Does she think that they need the protection of a grocery ombudsman, or
does she agree that they are more than big enough to look after themselves?
Miss McIntosh: I am so fond of my hon. Friend
that I have great difficulty in saying that I must draw his attention to the
remarks I have just made. His big organisation?Asda?is revered in north
Yorkshire because it stemmed from Associated Dairies, which not only set the
price but provided a market for local milk suppliers. Individual growers need
protection, because they are unable to speak for themselves. We all have big
constituencies and may not always be aware of such individuals. I hesitate to
say whether big companies are ?good guys? or ?bad guys?, but Asda and Morrisons
source a lot of their food locally?almost 80% or 90%. We need to protect the
small individual growers.
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee believes that two of its
conclusions could have an impact if the Secretary of State for Environment, Food
and Rural Affairs can persuade the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation
and Skills to amend the draft Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill. First, the
ability of suppliers to make anonymous complaints is fundamental to the success
of the groceries code adjudicator. Secondly, the adjudicator should have the
power to launch investigations. We are all agreed that he should have the power
to fine, but he should also have the power to launch investigations.
Laura Sandys: I have just established a
not-for-profit company called Ugly Food. The strapline is ?Tasty but imperfect,
just like you?. There is a phenomenal number of small suppliers who have food
rejected because their produce is not perfect. We should look to create a market
for that food, so that we do not waste it.
Miss McIntosh: The House will draw its own
conclusions about my hon. Friend?s self-advertising.
understand that the powers of the Competition Commission are based on the powers
of the Commission in Brussels. The EU directorate general for competition has
the power to swoop when it believes an investigation should take place. I urge
my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to make the same plea to the
Business, Innovation and Skills Secretary to adopt those two
recommendations?and, indeed, all the Committee?s recommendations.
Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be aware of the
Committee?s work on food security. I hope she will remove any inconsistencies
between trying to supply a secure strand of food and
23 Jan 2012 : Column 58
sustainable food production. There is an inconsistency at the heart of the
Government on that. She will be involved in discussions on common agricultural
reform in Brussels. Greening the common agricultural policy could take
productive land out of production. It could also be hugely expensive and involve
the introduction of more complex regulations, which we should be aiming to
Mrs Spelman: My hon. Friend will know that I
acknowledged that problem when I gave evidence to her Committee last week, and
that we will try to ameliorate the Commission?s proposals in that regard.
Miss McIntosh: I am most grateful for my right
hon. Friend?s clarification.
conclusion, we should say, ?Keep it simple.? With all the regulations coming
forward, whether to do with the adjudicator or not, the powers should be clear
and allow individual growers, under a cloak of anonymity, to raise such issues,
either directly or through a third party. I welcome this debate, although I
regret that many of the issues that I have raised are not covered by the motion.
However, we can have a positive debate today and see an early completion of the
adjudicator code, with an early introduction of the adjudicator in the next
Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): It is a
pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), who,
like me, represents a large rural constituency where farming is an important
industry. I visit farms and talk to farmers regularly, and the one question they
ask me to raise in Parliament is, ?When are we going to get the supermarkets
ombudsman?? I was not here in the previous Parliament. I cannot answer questions
about why successive Governments have not introduced a supermarkets ombudsman.
However, Members who were here tell me that the issue of a groceries code
adjudicator has a long and not very productive history.
have championed the cause in opposition, but have proven remarkably slow to put
anything into action when in government. In opposition, the Tories announced
that they would create the new body through a levy on retailers. Two years ago
this month, in January 2010, the then shadow Environment Secretary, the right
hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), said that
?further consultation is not the decisive action that
consumers or the industry need?Conservatives are clear: we would establish a
supermarket ombudsman to enforce the grocery supply code as a dedicated unit in
the Office of Fair Trading to ensure a fair deal for producers and safeguard the
we are two years into this Government, and it appears that they are not quite so
decisive now. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who was
then the Liberal Democrat environment, food and rural affairs spokesman, also
told us in January 2010:
?For years, Labour and the Tories have twiddled their thumbs
while huge supermarkets have pushed thousands of farmers to the brink. Their
response has been totally inadequate?.
the Lib Dems are part of this Government, yet we are seeing no sign of decisive
23 Jan 2012 : Column 59
have seen consistent, strong and decisive action is from the big four
supermarkets. They have always offered strong and sustained resistance to the
establishment of a supermarket ombudsman. Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury?s and Morrisons
have fought a long, consistent and, it now appears, successful campaign of
opposition and delay. However, in the meantime, the farming industry and the
consumer continue to wait. Tom MacMillan of the Food Ethics Council tells
?The government must now ensure that it listens to small
producers as well as big business. A strong supermarket ombudsman, invested with
real power, would have the authority to ensure fair prices from the farm gate to
point that the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton made. He continues:
?It would protect the livelihoods of farmers across the UK
and give consumers better access to fresh, healthy food.?
National Farmers Union tells us that dairy producers have been particularly
squeezed, with dairy farmers going out of business every day. That is exactly
what I am seeing in my constituency, where the number of dairy farmers has been
reduced significantly, as they either move into other forms of farming or, more
often, leave the industry altogether. War on Want believes that a supermarket
ombudsman would support farmers here at home and help poorly paid workers in the
developing world. Only the British Retail Consortium, speaking for the
supermarkets, believes that a supermarkets ombudsman is a costly and unnecessary
new bureaucracy that would not benefit suppliers or consumers. [Hon. Members:
?Hear, hear.?] Oh sorry, only the British Retail Consortium plus one or two
farmers in my constituency, and in many others across the country, are looking
for decisive action from the Government on this matter. How many more of them
need to go out of business before the Government get around to taking action?
Farmers and consumers need a groceries code adjudicator with real powers who can
impose real fines of a magnitude that will change the behaviour of food
retailers, and not just be seen as an occupational hazard and a risk worth
taking. That is the way to bring in fairness across the food chain. It really
does not matter whether we call the body a groceries code adjudicator, a
supermarkets ombudsman or Oftrolley; what matters is that we get such a body
Laura Sandys (South Thanet) (Con): I must now
declare an interest in the organisation called Ugly Food that I have
established. I believe that it is open to all small producers to market their
foods with new branding and a new logo.
I am looking at these matters non-politically, and perhaps I am looking too far
into the future, but I think that we have a real problem. We talk about cheap
food, but we are not always going to be able to deliver cheap food. We will have
been deluding our constituents by suggesting that it will be available in the
longer term, unless someone comes up with the answers to climate change,
increased calorific intake and population growth. If we are to be responsible
and live in the real world, we must try to deliver a system in which the cost of
23 Jan 2012 : Column 60
one?s family healthily and effectively does not go up in price, but that is
fundamentally different from talking about cheap food.
system in this country has been distorted by the very cheapness of the products.
Food here is cheaper than in any other country in Europe and, as a result, we
have seen a much steeper price hike in recent years than the rest of Europe.
That price hike has been compounded by two fundamental aspects of our food
chain. We import much more than any other OECD country, and we eat much more
processed food, which is highly energy intensive and labour intensive. A further
anomaly is that, although this country?s supply chain is supremely efficient, it
is not very resilient. As a result, we face greater price fluctuations and
volatility when shocks to the system occur.
Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): I draw Members?
attention to my declaration of interest. My hon. Friend is right to say that
food prices will continue to rise, and that that will be a problem. Is it not
the case, however, that one way of tackling that would be to tackle food waste?
Should we not also examine the new technology that could really move agriculture
forward, not only in the UK but around the world?
Laura Sandys: I totally agree with my hon.
Friend. It is pretty frightening that wheat yields in this country have not
increased at all over the past 20 years. Also, because food has been so cheap in
this country, we have not valued it. As a result, there is a huge amount of
waste in the system.
interesting that the Opposition have chosen this subject for debate, because you
left this country very vulnerable?
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order.
That is the second time the hon. Lady has done this. She is not to refer to the
Chair in that way. I have not done anything. She should refer to ?the hon.
Lady?. I certainly have nothing to do with fruit of any kind.
Laura Sandys: I do apologise, Madam Deputy
address the bigger problem of food insecurity, we should look to the energy
model. This Government?s strategy on energy insecurity aims to manage a valuable
resource, to address the waste in the system and to build greater UK resilience
to international price fluctuations. With some tweaks, several of those policy
mechanisms could and should be adopted for food. Security of supply is an
example. The previous Government cannot claim much credit in that area. Imports
of food increased by 52% under the previous Government and agricultural land was
diverted away from production. Thank goodness, today we have Ministers who
understand the issues of production.
greater security of supply, domestic production must, in my view, increase. We
must build a hedging mechanism against global volatility and realise not only
that food imports will become more expensive but that the level of imports, with
a weak pound, is having a negative impact on our balance of payments and placing
an inflationary pressure on benefits and entitlements.
address food waste with a similar tenacity to that with which we are addressing
energy waste through the green deal. We need to reverse the indulgent years
23 Jan 2012 : Column 61
that deskilled the consumer in food preparation and supported profligacy in
the supply chain. Customers?we, the consumers?are often accused of being
responsible for such waste, but I disagree. The system is designed to create
waste and the consumer is merely responding to how the supermarkets and other
retailers sell their products. The waste in procurement is terrifying and I hope
that the grocery code of practice will ensure that we reduce some of it. As I
have mentioned before, my campaign through Ugly Food is one way of addressing
some of the waste embedded in our system.
also embedded in the design of consumer-facing products. The hon. Member for
Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) talked about the packaging and presentation
of food. People blame the customer, but is it their fault? Servings of food are
often too big and processed foods are heavily advertised. Although the
Government have made a great deal of progress on display dates, safety dates
mislead the consumer about the longevity of products. Point-of-sale displays
draw consumers to larger packages rather than smaller units of food and
BOGOFs?buy one, get one free offers?neither help single item shoppers nor reduce
the bills for family shoppers.
Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire)
(Con): Will my hon. Friend add an additional item to that long and rather
depressing list, which is country of origin?
Laura Sandys: I believe that EU regulations are
changing and that country of origin labelling will have to be much clearer, but
we certainly have an issue with knowing and understanding exactly where food
comes from and, when it comes to meat, where the animal was born rather than
where it was reared.
system is designed around cheap disposable food and the UK, more than any other
country other than the US, must embark on a culture change. We should
re-engineer our food system to place value on food and to stop regarding it as
disposable. That is why I am calling for a food security obligation?similar to
the energy company obligation?for supermarkets and large food producers so that
they record and reduce waste through their procurement process and commit to
designing their products with the aim of delivering real value for money for the
consumer, which is quite different from cheap food.
2008 and 2011 were shocks to the system, but the price rises we have experienced
will be the norm in the future. We had better get used to it. Food will not be
cheap, but with the right policies in place, feeding our families need not be
Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I pay tribute to
the excellent work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen)
through his private Member?s Bill, the Grocery Market Ombudsman Bill, which, as
many Members will know, had a long history spanning several years. He said?this
is the most important thing to remember about the Bill?that it was about
fairness to all those involved, whether they were farmers, small producers,
local suppliers, suppliers from developing countries, small shops, convenience
stores, supermarkets or, most importantly, consumers.
23 Jan 2012 : Column 62
led to the proposal for a supermarket ombudsman or groceries adjudicator being
in all three parties? manifestos for the 2010 election, but what has happened
since then? The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) secured
an Adjournment debate on the groceries code adjudicator last April, and in May
we had the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills document, ?The
Government?s policy for a Groceries Code Adjudicator?, but it is now January
2012 and we do not seem to be any further on.
like to ask the Secretary of State why we are waiting so long for the Bill and
when we are going to see it. Is it going to contain the proper sanctions that we
all want to see?sanctions that will actually make a difference and make people
change their behaviour? Will the adjudicator be able to carry out proactive
investigations? One thing is for certain: if, as the hon. Member for South
Thanet (Laura Sandys) has explained, we need to increase food production,
farmers are not going to be able to do that if they are being squeezed on
prices. Many Members have cited the dairy industry as an obvious example. If the
price of milk is squeezed, people inevitably go out of business and we produce
less, which means we end up importing even such things as milk, which one would
think we could produce very easily in our climate.
Philip Davies: Here we are being offered again
this painless panacea in which everyone benefits from an ombudsman. Can the hon.
Lady explain how getting the supermarket to pay more to the supplier and the
farmer, fining it more and getting it to pay for the ombudsman will result in
reduced costs for the customer? I am absolutely fascinated to hear how that will
Nia Griffith: This is about fairness. It is about
paying a fair price to farmers for what they produce, having a fair price for
consumers, and stopping sharp practices. It is about protecting the good
businesses?the good guys if you like?and creating a level playing field, which
is extremely important.
address what happens to people when they go into supermarkets, particularly when
they buy fruit and vegetables. We should not forget that there has been a
dramatic drop of 30% in fruit and vegetable purchasing by the poorest families,
so that the poorest children now get only 2.7 of the five portions of fruit and
veg they should have each day. Is it small wonder that when people go into
supermarkets they are quite worried about what will end up on their bill at the
till, given that they are absolutely dazed by the displays of fruit and veg and
the ways of pricing them? Sometimes they are priced by the item, sometimes by
the packet?in fours, eights or tens?and sometimes by weight. For example, there
are many varieties of tomato, from cherry tomatoes to beef tomatoes, and there
is a range of different pricing mechanisms, which is extremely confusing. There
should be a very simple formula that allows us all to compare prices easily,
because it is very difficult with loose items such as fruit and veg, which can
be packed in so many different ways, to work out exactly what one is being
charged. Last September there was a bumper crop because of that fabulous spring
we had last April, but did we see prices drop? No. Could we have told if they
had dropped? No, because unlike at the petrol pump where we can all see the sign
23 Jan 2012 : Column 63
clearly and can tell when prices go up, one cannot see when prices for fruit
and veg go up?it is easy to disguise and to pull a fast one on the consumer.
Those issues need to be addressed.
hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) has explained, the number
of people needing help from food banks is increasing and it is set to increase
further. Why? Because some of this Government?s taxation policies are hitting
the poorest hardest and squeezing their income. For example, some of the changes
being introduced mean that those on low wages who are trying to do the right
thing and go out to work are going to find that their tax credits will be cut.
They would like to top up with more work hours, but those hours simply are not
available. Sometimes that is because supermarkets prefer to have people on low
hours; it gives them more flexibility for the Saturday and Sunday shifts that
they want worked.
about the cuts in housing benefit? They are going to leave many families who
currently receive the amount they need to pay their rent having to use what
should be food money to pay the rent. That is why we will see dramatic drops in
the amount that people can pay for their food. There will also be more and more
families relying on food banks. What about the cuts in winter fuel allowance?
They will leave some of our pensioners with less money to spend on food.
Simon Hart: Does the hon. Lady accept that
obesity is increasing, particularly among young people and people from poor
backgrounds? Despite the efforts of the previous Government and this Government,
that does not show much sign of changing. Does she accept that, in reality, the
issue is about a lot more than just the current Government?s tax system? It is
much wider and much more complex than she portrays it as being.
Nia Griffith: Obesity may very well be on the
increase because unhealthier foods are the only type that some families can
afford; they cannot afford the healthier alternatives. That is a real issue.
People look at the different pricing mechanisms and go for what can fill them
up. That is the type of food that they are having to rely on now. They do not
have the luxury of choice.
move on from pricing in supermarkets and our adjudicators Bill to my worry about
families who cannot afford something very basic: enough food to eat. That is
very serious. It is nothing to be proud of that we need to have food banks; that
is something that we do not want to see. We do not want anybody to have to rely
on charity for something that every family should be able to afford. We want
proper policies that will put money in the pockets of the people who need to
spend it on food. No one in this country?one of the richest countries in the
world?should have to look to charity for food. We need to make absolutely
certain that the policies put in place deliver fair prices for consumers and
farmers, and that the distribution of income levels is fair, so that those who
have the least can make the purchases that they need to make to feed their
family. It is an absolute disgrace to rely on food banks to do something that
everyone should be able to afford to do: feed their family.
23 Jan 2012 : Column 64
Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): Thank you for this
opportunity to speak on food poverty, Madam Deputy Speaker. Members have
mentioned with concern a lack of knowledge among many people today about what
constitutes a healthy diet, and a lack of the skills to create healthy meals. I
share those concerns, but in the time that I have, I would like to concentrate
on another skill that is less prevalent today than it was just one or two
generations ago: the skill to grow and produce at least some of our own food.
That is something that my grandparents did, and not just as a hobby; it gave
them a vital supplement to their daily diet. I remember enjoying that
whole-family activity on many summer evenings.
to concentrate on some of the excellent initiatives in my constituency devoted
to sharing know-how in this sphere. Interestingly, while some groups are decades
old, including the Middlewich and District Show Society, the Congleton and
District Horticultural Society, and the Alsager Gardens Association, others have
been set up in the past two to three years, with immense support. They include
the Sandbach Allotment Society, Home Grown in Holmes Chapel, and the Congleton
on low incomes have the lowest intakes of fruit and veg, and are therefore far
more likely to suffer from diet-related diseases such as cancer, diabetes,
obesity and coronary heart disease, which is why the initiatives that I am
talking about could be disproportionately valuable to them. The ability to
develop and share skills, and more opportunities for people to grow their
own?whether in their garden, a neighbour?s garden, or on community land?are
greatly needed. That need will increase, given that, as the chief scientific
adviser to the Government has said, by 2030 we will need to produce 50% more
food, and given that the European Commission?s current proposals could mean
taking 7% of land out of production, much to the consternation of farmers in my
back to the local, let me describe some of the benefits that the Middlewich
annual show promotes. There were 400 entries last year across the many
categories, including cookery, flowers and vegetables. John Carver, the
chairman, grows leeks, onions, carrots, potatoes, peas and broad beans in his
garden. I can testify, having visited, that it is as attractive as any garden
with flowers in it. He says he gardens as people did 30 years ago, and has to
buy hardly any veg for his family. He has carrots in storage, and freezes beans
and peas. He advises people to grow their own
?as they are far better since they have not lost any of their
last Middlewich show, it was a real pleasure to see the civic hall crowded out.
Some of the entrants were very young, and some of the veg were of phenomenal
size; several leeks, when stood on end for a photograph with me, were bigger
Chris Ruane: Never!
Fiona Bruce: That will not come as a surprise to
some Members. We should promote the idea of making greater use of gardens.
Indeed, many elderly people might appreciate having veg tended in their gardens
in exchange for some of the produce.
23 Jan 2012 : Column 65
Sandbach Allotment Society has been going for just two years. Forty people came
to the first meeting, and 120 to the second. It aims to encourage growing your
own, and has found temporary accommodation on a 1.2 acre site belonging to a
local farmer. That will provide 34 half-plots, each of which will provide a
significant amount of vegetables for a family, at a fraction of the cost of
buying them. It says that growing your own is not an old man?s domain; it is for
families. It brings families and communities together. I know how popular it is:
there is a 100-person waiting list for further allotments that it hopes to
Grown in Holmes Chapel is an innovative community action group that encourages
residents of Holmes Chapel and neighbouring communities to buy locally produced
food, shop in local shops, and work together to grow their own fruit and veg. It
has been lent two previously untended plots of land in the village centre, one
by the carpet shop and one by the health centre. The organisers say that,
despite rain showers, on a blustery May day, nearly 40 volunteers turned up to
the group?s first dig-in. Volunteers planted a variety of fruit and
veg?strawberries, lettuces, cabbages, sugar-snap peas, and radishes donated by
the volunteers, whose ages ranged from just 18 months to 75 years. Lissy Berry,
aged eight, said to her mum:
?This is hard work, but I?m really enjoying it?it is so
other volunteers agreed. Another said:
?I have really enjoyed myself?it is a wonderful feeling to
have achieved so much?.
to the group?s first harvest in October, and I can testify to the tastiness of
?We want people to think about the way we live our lives?We
are not trying to feed Holmes Chapel?just show what is possible with a little
space, sunshine, water and love! It is great to eat vegetables that have been
grown for taste, not for shelf-life, and it is great to be able to do so without
driving the car anywhere or eating produce that has been flown half way around
the world?We are growing community fruit and vegetables for the community to
group has great plans: it is starting to talk to the parish council and Cheshire
East council about planting fruit trees around the village; holding a ?shop
local? week; and encouraging residents who have a bit of spare community land
near their house to set up a community veg plot. It is working with Holmes
Chapel primary school; I was pleased to see recently planted herbs and veg
there, and there are plans for more vegetable beds. It wants to work with
retirement and nursing homes in the village, and to see if it can get community
groups working together to grow fruit and veg in those places. It says:
?that is enough to keep us busy for some time to come!?
initiatives in the constituency seek to reduce waste. Ray Brown, a farmer,
proposes to convert an old Ministry of Defence fuel base into an anaerobic
digester, with the support of Cheshire East council. It is anticipated that it
will be able to take all the food waste from the entire population of Cheshire
East, which covers not just my constituency but several others. That will raise
Cheshire East?s recycling rates to a remarkable potential 90%. The scheme will
also generate electricity and feed it into the grid. As I hope the Government
will recognise, that should negate the need for an incinerator just 15 minutes
away in Middlewich.
23 Jan 2012 : Column 66
waste, I cannot omit to mention the tremendous work done by the Congleton
Sustainability Group, which produced the now-famous Congleton apple juice that
many Members tried here recently. In 2010, it used 3.5 tonnes of apples that
would otherwise have gone to waste, and its target for 2011 was 5 tonnes.
are just a few initiatives, but there are many more that I could have described.
If we are to alleviate food poverty, it is important to promote, share and
develop skills at all levels of food production. It could take us a considerable
way towards tackling problems in the years and decades to come.
Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree)
(Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my Front-Bench colleagues on securing today?s
debate on this relevant and topical issue. I wish to use this opportunity to
highlight the national scandal of rising poverty.
people find it hard to believe that food poverty really exists in this country.
Last year, I was aghast to hear the former Conservative MP, Edwina Currie, say
on BBC radio that she had ?great difficulty? believing that people in Britain
went without food. Only last week, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions
said that people are not suffering as a result of benefit changes. Perhaps they
have not seen the very real and tragic situation that thousands of families and
pensioners face this winter, and perhaps they have not been affected by the 4%
rise in food prices over the past 12 months. However, the thousands who are
forced to queue for handouts, in lines that stretch through church halls and
community centres across our country, certainly are, and they include people who
struggle to balance housing costs and rising energy bills, and the mums and dads
who go hungry so that their children do not have to. With rising prices, higher
living costs and falling wages, it is becoming more difficult for people to make
ends meet. The consumer prices index shows that the average household spends 12%
of their income on food, meaning that a couple with two young children spend
more than £5,000 a year on food. In addition, according to the OECD figures that
we have discussed a great deal this afternoon, 4% food inflation has added an
extra £233 to that bill over the past year alone.
even harder for lower-income households to cope. DEFRA?s own statistics show
that they have to spend 15.8% of their income on food?nearly 3% more than the
average household. While jobseeker?s allowance for a single adult is £67.50, it
is just not possible to eat healthily on £8 a week or just over £1 a day. Last
May, I did the ?Live Below the Line? challenge, which was organised to raise
money for charities in Africa, and I lived on £1 a day for food and drink for
five days. I did not have enough protein, and I got headaches. I could afford
just one of the five recommended pieces of fruit and veg a day. I endured that
for just five days: there are over 4,000 people in my constituency for whom that
is a reality 365 days a year.
therefore not surprising that fruit and vegetable consumption in poorer families
fell by 30% last year. It is even harder to buy food when the support to which
someone is entitled to is not paid on time, as I found out when I visited a
Trussell Trust food bank in my constituency just before Christmas. I met a man
who had walked in the freezing rain to get to the food bank. The week
23 Jan 2012 : Column 67
before, he had been in hospital recovering from heart surgery. When he came
out of hospital, he was told that he would have to wait a number of weeks for
his benefit payments to be reinstated. He was hungry. His district nurse had
given him a food voucher, but he could not afford the bus or a taxi. He had to
walk more than four miles. He was a desperate man.
one of three food banks operating across Liverpool. We have five in total across
Merseyside providing desperately needed assistance to people who cannot afford
to buy food. The figures show that the largest proportion of people seeking
emergency assistance?just under 40%?do so because of delays in receiving benefit
payments. With the Chancellor?s austerity programme sucking growth out of our
economy and pushing up inflation and employment, it is clear that, following
reductions, Her Majesty?s Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and
Pensions cannot cope with the demands placed on them. That is set to get worse,
as it is estimated that over the next three years HMRC will lose 10,000 more
staff, and DWP is set to lose 17,000 staff.
constituency in the past nine months, 312 people were issued with food vouchers
for themselves and their families, which entitled them to at least three visits
to the food bank, but the food bank would never turn them away if they needed
anything more. That situation is not unique to Liverpool. There has been a huge
growth in food banks across the country, with one opening every week last year.
Contrary to what the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
believes, I do not think that that is something to celebrate. As my hon. Friend
the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) highlighted, according to the Trussell
Trust, the fantastic charity that runs 163 food banks across the UK, in the past
12 months, 60,000 people received help from food banks, including 20,000
children. It predicts that 130,000 people will need help this year.
Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) highlighted the fact that
those figures are set to rise to 500,000 by 2015. The figures are staggering and
awful but, faced with that crisis, the Government have pursued out-of-touch
policies that are making the situation worse, not better. They are making it
harder for families and pensioners to make ends meet and to cope with the rising
cost of living. Tax rises and spending cuts that go too far and too fast are
choking off economic recovery, pushing up prices and leading to soaring
reckless plan has backfired on the deficit too, with more people out of work and
claiming benefit rather than paying taxes, meaning that the Government will not
balance the books by 2015 as they promised. It is time to change course and get
our economy growing to create more jobs. DEFRA should play its part by putting
the food industry?the largest manufacturing sector in the UK?at the heart of the
economic recovery and getting a fair deal for British farmers and food
manufacturers. We want a competitive supply chain for growers, processors and
Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was pressed earlier
about when the groceries code adjudicator will be introduced, but we did not
receive clarification. We are concerned that the office will not be up and
running until at least 2014-15. As price rises are 0.7% above the EU average at
23 Jan 2012 : Column 68
need action now, and we also need to act to protect consumers from vested
interests. The grocery market is dominated by four big supermarkets, which
account for about 85% of the total market. Nine out of 10 people are concerned
about rising food prices, and over half of them are comparing prices more when
shopping for food. However, only 53% of people think that it is easy to work out
which product is better value for money using the price information available on
labels. Consumers need transparent pricing from the major retailers to make it
easier to compare goods so that they can make informed choices. Under Labour
proposals, retailers would provide clearer unit pricing for goods, with
information that is easier to read, and with unit prices for promotional
motion sets out to put right the failed approach of this Government, who are out
of touch with families and pensioners facing the squeeze from rising living
costs. The approach set out by Labour in the motion would help the thousands of
men, women and children who cannot afford to eat properly this winter,
introducing measures to get our economy moving and securing a fair deal for
British farmers and consumers. Unlike the Secretary of State, I do not welcome
the escalation in the number of food banks: there are already three too many in
Liverpool, and 163 too many across the UK. It is a tragic and terrifying
indictment that we have food poverty in 21st-century Britain, one of the richest
nations in the world, and that food poverty is rising. The Government must do
anything and everything to reverse the situation in which over 100,000 people
this year cannot afford to buy food to eat. I urge everyone to vote for the
Several hon. Membersrose?
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): I shall try
my level best to allow everyone to speak. The wind-up speeches begin at 6.40 pm,
so there is a six-minute limit on speeches.
Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): I shall do my very
best, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am the first Liberal Democrat speaker, and I regret
the fact that we have only six minutes. Of course, I am not criticising you, Mr
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): There are no more
Andrew George: The hon. Gentleman has only just
arrived in the Chamber, so I advise him not to start.
welcome the fact that the Opposition have introduced this important debate, the
full title of which is, ?Rising Food Prices and Food Poverty?. That is
appropriate, although I notice that the motion is rather narrow, and refers
primarily to the groceries code adjudicator. Following my intervention on the
hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), I urge the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw
Irranca-Davies), when he replies to the debate, to ensure that the Opposition
reflect carefully on the drafting error in the motion, which sends an unhelpful
message to those of us who believe that the primary message of today?s debate
concerns the speed of the introduction of the groceries code adjudicator. I urge
him to withdraw
23 Jan 2012 : Column 69
the motion when he has an opportunity to do so. It is vital that we send a
strong, clear message through our debate.
acknowledge the point that many Members have made about the impact of food
poverty and the fact that people have to choose between paying their rent and
eating, or between paying their heating bill and eating. Nowhere does that apply
more than in my constituency, which has been at the bottom of the earnings
league table for years, pretty much since records began. Tragically and
regrettably, a food bank is required in Penzance, which is strictly managed by
an excellent team of volunteers led by David Mann, Brenda Fox and others, who do
very good work. They consider it a matter of enormous regret that such things
welcome other topics raised by the hon. Member for Wakefield, including the
importance of maintaining regulation by the Gangmasters Licensing Authority and
ensuring that agricultural workers are properly remunerated for their work. She
expressed dismay at the failure to introduce the grocery code adjudicator. I
remind her of the dismay that many of us felt at the failure of the previous
Government to act in this area. However, those who have followed the debate over
many years recognise that this is a matter on which there is cross-party
hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), who was mentioned earlier, the former
Member for Stroud, David Drew, who did some excellent work in this area, the
hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), the hon. Member for
South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), who is the Minister for Further
Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning?Members across all parties?have
recognised that the abuse of power by the supermarkets is unacceptable.
2008 report the Competition Commission recognised that there was a climate of
fear in the supply chain. That had been identified by the Office of Fair Trading
report in 2004, when it reviewed the failure of the then supermarket code of
practice and the urgent need for a grocery supply code of practice. As a result
of the Competition Commission?s work, that has been in place since February
2010, but it is a little like a game of rugby without a referee. It is all very
well having the rules in place, but if there is no one to enforce them, we do
not know that rampant abuses of power are not occurring within the supermarket
declare an involvement as the chair of the Grocery Market Action Group, which
includes representatives from the National Farmers Union, Friends of the Earth,
the Association of Convenience Stores, the British Brands Group and other
organisations. Since 2006 we have been providing evidence to the Competition
Commission and pushing for an adjudicator. We have made the point that we need a
supermarket watchdog that has proactive powers, can take information
anonymously, can receive third-party and trade association evidence, and follow
that through to an inquiry. Of course it is important that an adjudicator should
not be able to go on fishing expeditions and waste the time and resources of
supermarkets and their suppliers in undertaking pointless inquiries. That will
sort itself out over time.
Simon Wright (Norwich South) (LD): I know that my
hon. Friend has been looking into the matter for some years. What does he
consider to be the initial priorities of the adjudicator, once that office is
23 Jan 2012 : Column 70
Andrew George: I am grateful to my hon. Friend.
The objectives in the draft Bill are helpful. However, the importance of speed
should be emphasised. Most of the framework is in the Bill, and I would be
prepared to have it put in place early, even if we failed to achieve some of the
elements that I have spoken about?proactivity, anonymity, third party referral
to the adjudicator, which is important, and the power to fine.
Bill may well enable the Secretary of State to introduce regulations allowing
the adjudicator to fine supermarkets that fall below the standards set in the
Bill. To bring about reputational damage, which is the only way in which
supermarkets will be made to change their practice, that additional power will
be needed. It is important to recognise that not all the supermarkets and those
who will be brought under the code object to the proposal. Supermarkets have
been achieving record profits in the deepest recession, so to argue that they
cannot afford it is rubbish.
to the hon. Member for Ogmore that speed is of the essence. The motion should be
withdrawn in order that we send a strong message to the outside world.
Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): As we have
heard, people in the UK are facing the biggest squeeze in living standards since
the war. They are being hit on all sides. They are losing their jobs or their
overtime or having their pay frozen. If they are self-employed, they are
struggling to earn the sort of money that they used to earn. They are being hit
by cuts to public services, rising fuel bills, rising rents, cuts to housing
benefits, cuts to tax credits, and as we have heard today, they are being hit by
rising food bills too. All those things add up and have a devastating impact on
prices in the UK have been rising at well over twice the rate of the incomes of
the poorest. Over the past five years, food prices have gone up by 32%, rising
at well over twice the rate of the national minimum wage and twice the rate of
jobseeker?s allowance. Around one in every 16 people have been forced to skip
meals so that the rest of their family can eat. In Bristol that represents
26,500 people in the city having to go hungry because of financial hardship.
Eight hundred people in Bristol have used a food bank in the past year. Oxfam
South West has reported an increase in demand on its food banks, with some
reporting a 100% increase on the previous year?s total of applications for help.
As we have heard, the Trussell Trust estimates that the number of people using
food banks could increase from 100,000 this year to up to 500,000 by the end of
congratulate the charities and churches that run the food banks on the work they
do. During the half-term recess I will be visiting the food bank in Bristol run
by FareShare, which is an excellent organisation. Those charities make an
immeasurable difference to people?s lives, but as Kate Wareing, Oxfam?s UK
poverty programme director, has said,
?Everybody in the UK should have enough money to feed
themselves and their families, whether they are in or out of work. It?s an
outrage that increasing numbers of people in our country are having to visit
food banks to feed themselves or put a hot meal on table for their
although I welcome the work of those running food banks, I?unlike the Secretary
of State?do not welcome the need for their existence.
23 Jan 2012 : Column 71
Families are not only turning to food banks. The Child
Poverty Action Group has found that for a quarter of the children in the UK,
school dinners are their only source of hot food. In Bristol the number of
children eligible for school meals has been rising. Fortunately, the local
schools forum agreed to maintain funding after this Government discontinued the
ring-fenced school lunch grant, but schools too will be affected by rising
prices. The value of breakfast clubs is often overlooked, despite the fact that
32% of children regularly miss breakfast. The simple truth is that too many
children arrive at school each morning having not eaten a proper meal since
lunchtime the day before. Research by London Economics found that breakfast
clubs led to a statistically significant increase in attainment and improvements
in punctuality that clearly outweigh the costs. A survey by Magic Breakfast, a
charity that provides breakfasts at 22p per child at 200 primary schools,
including some in Bristol, found that 88% of schools see improved
limited time I have left, I want to talk about the problem of food waste. Many
people would regard it as immoral that good edible food is thrown away when
people are going to bed hungry. On a global scale, all the world?s 1 billion
hungry people could be lifted out of malnourishment on less than a quarter of
the food wasted in the US, the UK and Europe. Charities such as FareShare and
FoodCycle are taking concerted action to tackle the problem, and doing so in a
way that also encourages healthy eating, community involvement and volunteer
engagement. I am proud to be a patron of FoodCycle.
the problem lies in the supply chain?farming, feeding livestock, transportation,
supermarket supply, restaurant policy and expenditure, and a demand for
out-of-season food free from visual imperfections, as we heard from the hon.
Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys). I congratulate her on her Ugly Food
most recent report on the grocery market in 2008, the Competition Commission
concluded that supermarkets are guilty of passing unnecessary risks and
excessive costs on to their suppliers?for example, through forecasting errors by
supermarkets. They might tell a manufacturer a week in advance that they will
probably want 100,000 sandwiches, but on the morning the sandwiches are to be
delivered, they substantially reduce their order, leaving the supplier with a
pallet-load of sandwiches which they cannot sell. Worse still, many products
carry the supermarket?s own brand name and supermarkets will often forbid the
manufacturers to sell the products on, insisting that they must be sold to them
exclusively. There is also concern that if they give the products to charity,
that will damage the brand.
Particularly shamefully, supermarkets often agree a
price for a product with their supplier, but when sales are less than predicted
and products need to be put on price reduction, the supermarket will turn around
and require the supplier to share the burden of the reduced revenue. Even worse,
there are the notorious take-back agreements, whereby supermarkets return to the
manufacturer produce that they have failed to sell.
Although the work of food redistribution charities is
invaluable, their very existence implies an acceptance of the level of social
inequality that creates the coexistence of food poverty and food waste. With
more than one in
23 Jan 2012 : Column 72
five workers earning less than a living wage, low pay is so pervasive that
tax credits and food parcels are required to give hard-working families the
support they need simply to put food on the table. That is why I strongly
support calls for the draft Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill to be brought
forward in this year?s Queen?s Speech.
also bring forward a ten-minute rule Bill in March calling for action to enforce
the principles of the food waste pyramid, which deals first with the reduction
of food waste, then the distribution of surplus food to redistribution
charities, and then sale or donation for feeding livestock, rather than food
waste being sent for anaerobic digestion, or?even worse?landfill. I will be
happy to talk with other Members who are interested in the Bill, and I hope that
they will join me in supporting it.
Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): In the Order
Paper, the title of this debate is ?Rising Food Prices and Food Poverty?, but I
note that the words ?food poverty? appear nowhere in the motion. We should start
by examining what constitutes a state of affairs that can be described as food
poverty. The Food Ethics Council, a registered charity, states on its
?Food poverty means that an individual or household isn?t
able to obtain healthy, nutritious food, or can?t access the food they would
like to eat.?
wide and all-embracing a definition, it could be argued that millions of people,
including many quite high up the income scale, are living in food poverty.
Having said that, there are people on limited and fixed incomes for whom paying
the bills is a great struggle, but I do not accept the patronising view that
they are somehow more likely to suffer from obesity because they can afford to
eat only certain types of food. As we have heard this afternoon, processed and
sugary foods are often much more expensive than fresh foods. I accept that food,
as a variable item of expenditure, is always likely to come under pressure when
there are other demands on the household budget. The question is what we can do
to help those struggling to make ends meet.
to make two main points. First, we need to tackle the European Union?s common
agricultural policy. It must be reformed. In a limited debate of this nature
there is no time to do any more than flag up that disastrous policy. Few other
sectors are controlled quite so overwhelmingly from Brussels as agriculture.
Despite the Labour party signing away the UK rebate, supposedly in return for
substantial reform, the CAP remains a complex system of subsidies and incentives
that I believe distort the operation of the free market.
Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): I am
interested in my hon. Friend?s point about the impact of the CAP. Does he agree
that the biggest impact is caused by completely unnecessary regulation on
farming? I happen to be a livestock farmer, and the costs of some requirements,
such as electronic tagging, have to be transferred and are a serious contributor
to the cost of food.
Mr Nuttall: My hon. Friend makes an excellent
point. I submit that the impact of EU regulation is of far greater concern to
farmers than their relationship with our nation?s supermarkets. Despite all the
23 Jan 2012 : Column 73
with the CAP, it still takes up more than 40% of the entire EU budget.
British consumers would be far better off if we were free from the tentacles of
the European Union and its CAP altogether.
Secondly, I do not think that we should interfere with
the operation of our retailers. The fierce competition between high street food
retailers has led to the sustained availability of a huge choice of foods that
previous generations could only have dreamt of. As Asda battles Tesco, which
competes with Sainsbury?s, which fights with Morrisons, which battles with
Waitrose, Lidl, Booths, Aldi and Marks & Spencer, all competing with each
other and with smaller chains and independents, there is surely no doubt that
all this competition has served to drive down prices for the benefit of all
Julian Sturdy: Is it not true that driving down
some of those costs has been detrimental to dairy farmers? Milk prices have
fallen, and the fact that supermarkets sell milk as a loss leader is having a
real impact on local dairy farmers.
Mr Nuttall: Dairy farmers can band together and
form co-operatives in order to strengthen their negotiating position, as they
have done. The market solution to the problem is to have higher prices. I am
conscious of the fact that many Members wish to contribute to the debate, so
will leave my remarks there.
Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): Thank you, Mr
Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in the debate, and I apologise for not
being here at the start?I was serving on a Statutory Instrument Committee.
afraid that the Government are yet again out of touch, in this case with
families feeling the squeeze of higher food prices. At 4%, food inflation in the
UK outstrips that of all other EU countries. I am pleased to follow the hon.
Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), because of his interest in Europe, and to be
able to give that context.
hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and for
Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) powerfully and graphically spelt out, food poverty
is a growing concern. The cost of living crisis is affecting households across
the country and more families are relying on food banks. I pay tribute to the
food bank in my constituency, organised by Scunthorpe Baptist church, which does
a fantastic job in helping people to meet their crisis needs, particularly when
there is a dislocation in their benefit payments. As has been said throughout
the debate, although we recognise the great benefits that food banks bring to
society, it is a great shame and a great condemnation of where we are that
people in such a rich country have to rely on them.
afraid that the Government are making it harder for families to make ends meet
and overseeing a massive growth in handouts from food banks as families struggle
with rising costs, higher bills and job insecurity. Rising food poverty is a
national scandal. Last year 60,000 people relied on food handouts, including
20,000 children, and one new food bank opened every week. A family with two
small children now has to pay over £233 a year more for food due to rising
23 Jan 2012 : Column 74
Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) drew attention to the health risks
of families eating less fresh fruit and vegetables, and I was pleased to hear
the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) speak about the contribution that
people growing their own food on allotments can make. I am pleased that in my
constituency there are initiatives across many primary schools whereby fruit and
vegetables are grown to make children and families aware of the benefit of
eating them. Indeed, Leys Farm junior school not only has such an initiative,
but the produce is served in the school kitchen. There is much good practice out
there that we need to build on.
Consumers want transparent food pricing by major
retailers so that it is easy to compare goods and to make informed choices, and
that is why unit pricing is so important. I am concerned, however, about the
need to crack on with introducing the grocery code adjudicator; there is a
strong cross-party consensus for putting that role in place.
asked several written questions on the matter and, in particular, on the issue
of confidentiality in order to protect people who make complaints to the
adjudicator, and the responses that I have received have all been in a similar
vein: ?Protecting the confidentiality of suppliers who raise complaints will be
both a power and a duty of the Adjudicator.? But the question is how that is
done, and the key issue is how it is managed.
security surrounding confidentiality is important. I had a meeting today with
representatives of a packaging federation, and they made it clear that their
members would be concerned about making individual complaints to the
adjudicator, and that third-party complaints would need to be part of the
structure. The hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) said that people in the
supply chain often operate in a climate of fear, so it is important that the
decisions of this House, in pushing forward the role of the grocery adjudicator,
ensure that that climate no longer exists and is properly addressed.
National Farmers Union in my constituency and throughout the country is very
much concerned to ensure that there is a third-party complaints process. Alex
Godfrey, who represents the NFU in Scunthorpe, has made that very clear to me,
echoing the evidence that was given to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
that this debate helps to hasten putting in place the grocery code adjudicator
in a way that gains the confidence of not only the people in this Chamber, but
the people out there and, most importantly, the people who might want to use the
adjudicator to ensure fair play in the world.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): I am grateful
to the previous two speakers, Nic Dakin and David Nuttall, for not using their
full allocation of time, as it allows at least two more speakers to get
Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): It
gives me great pleasure to speak in this debate, as there is no doubt about the
conclusion that we should make?that there is a link between food prices and food
poverty. It is apparent that the poorest in society will find high prices
difficult, and we only have to look throughout the world to find that. As the
population of the world
23 Jan 2012 : Column 75
reaches 7 billion, and moves towards 8 billion by 2030, we have a greater
need to produce more food, and that is where I charge the previous Government,
because for much of their final period in office they did not encourage food
production. In fact they said, ?We can import as much food as we like?; our home
production did not matter.
therefore need greatly to increase our food production in this country, and as
other Members have said, we need to use biotechnology in order to do so and to
reduce our use of fertilisers and pesticides. A blight-resistant potato is
coming, and it could increase food production while dramatically reducing the
environmental consequences of spraying potatoes, so there is much we can do, but
we have to go forward and do it.
grocery code adjudicator, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies),
who is no longer in his place, missed the point. If these wonderful supermarkets
are not doing anything wrong, they have nothing to fear from the adjudicator.
The point of setting up the post of adjudicator is to put him or her in place so
that, if there is abuse, it can be looked at. My right hon. Friend the Secretary
of State wants the role of the adjudicator introduced quickly, so we need to
give the legislation parliamentary time. Farmers, growers and many other people
in the food chain are often squeezed not only by the big supermarkets but by the
big buyers in the chains, and that is why the adjudicator is so necessary.
therefore very much welcome the debate and what the Government are doing to
increase food production and ensure that common agricultural policy reform does
not set aside more land and stop food production. There is a moral obligation to
produce food not only for this country, but for the rest of the world.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Thank you for
your time constraint.
Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): In the brief
time that I have to speak, I shall make three points: first, about the link
between food poverty and obesity; secondly, about the impact of loss leaders;
and thirdly, about the role of local food production.
from the health and social care information centre show that one third of
children are now obese, but the link between deprivation and the risk of obesity
is stark. We see it in reception class, but it becomes even starker as children
move through to year 6, where currently 23.6% of the poorest children, but only
12.8% of the wealthiest, are obese. The reason why is the difficulty not just
with buying food, but with the types of food that are the cheapest, with
people?s choices being driven by supermarkets and with the operation of loss
not call on the adjudicator to issue an outright ban on loss leaders, because
previous inquiries have shown that such action does not reduce the cost of food
overall, but there needs to be much greater clarity about the cross-subsidies
that loss leaders introduce, as subsidising products such as alcohol, chocolate
and crisps increases the cost of much healthier foods. We need to address that
issue, because one of the Labour Government?s greatest failures, as identified
by the King?s Fund, was in making progress on health inequalities, which we
23 Jan 2012 : Column 76
cannot address without tackling issues such as alcohol and nutrition. That is
an important point, because obesity affects children?s life chances and costs
the rest of us. We know that, unless we address obesity, by 2050 it will cost
the country about £10 billion a year, so the adjudicator represents good value
addition to addressing loss leaders and ensuring that people have access to
good-quality food, Ministers should also consider the role of local food
production. I pay tribute to Transition Town Totnes and the Campaign to Protect
Rural England for clearly setting out how supporting good, local, sustainable
food webs and delivering good, fresh, seasonal produce does not necessarily
result in higher prices, and for showing that we can use measures to encourage
the right choice to be the healthy choice.
Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): This has been
a very good and wide-ranging debate, and all in all I think that we have had 12
speakers, if my maths is good?although maths is not my strong point.
hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) spoke eloquently on behalf of
farmers, and pressed the Government on farmers? genuine concerns about currency
and exchange rates and rising costs. She spoke also of, in her phrase, ?the
climate of fear? in the supply chain, and we recognise that. She pushed the
Government, as she has in her role as Chair of the excellent Environment, Food
and Rural Affairs Committee, to give real teeth and power to the adjudicator.
She also almost referred to ?good? and ?bad? retailers, so I look forward to her
contribution to the Labour Left review or to Progress magazine.
hon. Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) also spoke well, and said that the
era of cheap food is coming to an end. Perhaps it is, but if so I am sure we all
agree that we need the fairest prices for consumers and fairness throughout the
food chain. She mentioned her involvement with, if this is correct, ?Tasty but
ugly like you.? I do not mean you, Mr Deputy Speaker, of course. I hesitate to
lay the words ?tasty? or ?ugly? on you?[Interruption.]
No, I will stop there.
hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who represents a lovely part of the
world which I know well, made a very good contribution that could have been
called, ?The Plot Thickens?. She talked about the importance of grow your own,
and I too stress the role of allotments?given that the chair of the National
Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners, a very good gardener, lives in my
constituency?and the need to protect and enhance them. The hon. Lady talked of
giant leeks, which we see also at Wales rugby matches, and she advocated growing
produce in one?s garden or in one?s neighbour?s garden?although in the latter
case it is always best to ask permission.
hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) said that there was no mention of ?food
poverty? in the motion. There is: it is in the title. The hon. Member for
Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) recognised the real problem of food poverty,
on which I congratulate him, and he took issue with his hon. Friend the Member
for Shipley (Philip Davies) about the nature and purpose of the adjudicator, on
which we agree. There was also a thoughtful contribution from the hon. Member
for Totnes (Dr Wollaston).
23 Jan 2012 : Column 77
hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) made a good contribution. He welcomed
much of our motion and many of our remarks. I can clarify that we want the
adjudicator in the next parliamentary Session. Will he support us? He should not
let a drafting error get in the way of our emerging coalition on this
Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) spoke extremely well
for his constituents, describing a ?heat or eat? scenario?or, worse, neither
heat nor eat. He went into detail on food banks and mentioned clearly that they
did not exist in great numbers under Labour because there was not the need for
them on the scale at which they are now emerging.
Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) spoke powerfully for farmers
in her area and the early introduction of a powerful groceries code adjudicator
in the next parliamentary Session. We agree. ?Fairness across the food
chain??her phrase?is a good rallying cry. My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli
(Nia Griffith) paid tribute to the work of our hon. Friend the Member for Ynys
Môn (Albert Owen) on the groceries code adjudicator and called for an urgent
introduction of an adjudicator with clout. She said, stirringly, that it is a
disgrace that anyone should have to rely on charity to feed their family.
Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) focused expertly on food
poverty, the growth in the number of food banks in Bristol and the work being
done to mitigate the problem of food poverty. My hon. Friend the Member for
Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) described the national scandal of rising
food poverty, coupled with the rise in broad poverty issues throughout the UK.
She gave direct evidence of the human tragedy for her own constituents, not
least because of the late payment of benefits, something echoed by my hon.
Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin).
Secretary of State talked widely about global issues, but did not focus on the
particulars of food poverty and food banks. Labour Members picked up on an
astonishing complacency. She described food banks as a triumph for the big
society, rather than a tragedy caused by the Government?s social and economic
policy. How many more food banks do we need before we can proclaim the big
society a resounding success?
Mrs Spelman: When the hon. Gentleman checks
Hansard tomorrow, he will see that I did not use the word ?triumph?.
Opposition Members have failed to observe that, for many decades, many
institutions in this country have helped the poor and needy. If he has never
been to a harvest festival and understood that churches collect food to
distribute among those in their community who really need it, he is not alert to
how much that is part of British culture.
Huw Irranca-Davies: Charitable effort has indeed
always been part of this country, before the phrase ?big society? was invented,
but never with the proliferation that we currently see. It is a tragedy.
relate a direct story about one not unusual family of four in England today. One
parent is out of work and the other is in a low-paid job. Before Christmas, they
found themselves behind on their mortgage, with their council tax debt racking
up and the gas and electricity meters running out of money. They receive working
tax credit and child tax credit, both of which
23 Jan 2012 : Column 78
will soon be cut by the Government. Their home is increasingly cold and dark
and the only things in their cupboards are food parcels from the local food
bank. The right hon. Lady shakes her head, but they buy what fresh food they can
when they can, but without the support and kindness of local people, they would
simply go hungry. We would love that to be fiction, but such are now the facts
of life for too many families.
that harsh reality stumbles a throwback to the 1980s?a former Conservative
Minister and hon. Member for South Derbyshire. When confronted recently with
that dire social and economic regression, she boldly answered:
?Are you telling me people in this country are going hungry?
seriously?former Conservative Ministers might not want to believe it, but it is
a searing indictment of the Government that more and more people across England,
Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland find themselves relying on food banks, one
of which was opening every week last year. Those people depend on the generosity
of others to get by.
year, 60,000 people received help from a food bank, a figure that the Trussell
Trust predicts will rise to 130,000 in the next year. For all those impoverished
families who now need a voice in the Chamber, the words and sentiment of the
former Member for Ebbw Vale echo down the years: this is their truth, our
truth?tell me yours. What is true across the UK is true in my constituency and
neighbouring constituencies. From Llanharan to Gilfach Goch, and Maesteg to
Pontycymmer, and all points between, food banks proliferate.
should pay tribute to the many volunteers and organisations involved, such as
the Bridgend food bank and the Pontyclun food bank, but the issue is a terrible
indictment of the economic misery inflicted on families under this failing
coalition Government. I challenge the Minister and the Government to dispute
that stark reality. The Government?s failing policies and inaction on the
economy mean that families are finding it hard to make ends meet and struggling
to cope with rising living costs, higher energy, housing and food bills, and the
constant fear that they could lose their jobs?if they have them?at any time.
many, eating is losing out to heating and housing costs. Charities warn that
having a job is now no protection; an estimated 10% of food bank recipients are
middle earners whose salaries have been cut or frozen or who have recently lost
their jobs. Food prices rose by more than 4% last year. Lower-income families
are eating less fresh fruit and vegetables. They spend more than 15% of their
income on food. In real terms, it comes down to a couple with two young children
spending an extra £233 on their annual food bill.
surveyed by Which?in the last year, more than half of consumers said that
increasing prices made it difficult to eat healthily. Nearly 90% genuinely fear
the increasing cost of food. Those are startling figures. However, when people
need help, the Government seem torn between prevarication and paralysis when it
comes to taking action that will go some way towards easing the pressure on
people?s wallets?not least by assisting farmers and manufacturers of the food we
eat with the retail and financial challenges that they face.
government, Labour took action after the hike in food prices in 2008 to address
that challenge and to produce more food sustainably. In 2010, we published
23 Jan 2012 : Column 79
the first Government food strategy for 60 years and our priority was a
sustainable, affordable competitive food sector. We gained cross-party support
for the supermarket ombudsman?to ensure a fair deal for farmers and food
producers, who still need a fair deal from major retailers?and for the
implementation of the groceries supply code of practice in February 2010.
there was more to be done, but the creation of an ombudsman?the groceries
adjudicator?to enforce and monitor the code of practice was a recommendation of
the Competition Commission and is supported by the Environment, Food and Rural
Affairs and Business, Innovation and Skills Committees. It would do a great deal
for farmers, food manufacturers and the public. It was not just us asking for
Andrew George: I have to put the hon. Gentleman
right. The Competition Commission was empowered and used its power to introduce
the groceries supply code of practice; it was not the last Labour Government.
Will he retract that claim?
Huw Irranca-Davies: I am happy to say that the
code is in place, and that happened while the Labour party was in government. I
agreed with the hon. Gentleman when he said last September:
?Every week the government fails to act, farmers are finding
themselves in more difficulty.?
us get on with it.
not want bluff and bluster; we do need action. As my hon. Friend the Member for
Wakefield (Mary Creagh) said, we ignore the perfect storm of rising prices,
falling incomes and food poverty at our peril. I urge the House to support the
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Richard Benyon): I compliment my hon.
Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George), who bowled the hon. Member for
Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) and hit the middle stump, showing the paucity of the
motion. I offer advice to the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues?they simply
cannot support the wording in the motion. It is a sign of desperation to pray in
aid somebody who has not been in the House for 15 years when referring to
Conservative or any other policy.
clear from this afternoon?s debate that Members on both sides of the House take
seriously the challenges posed by food price inflation. It is also clear that
down the years Governments of different complexions have seen varying degrees of
price volatility. Of course I agree with hon. Members on both sides that
wonderful work is done by charities and other organisations to support people on
low incomes. That has always been the case. But please can we not pretend that
in some parallel universe those charities were all forced into action on 6 May
2010 and that their existence is totally the result of the coalition Government?
That is such a puerile and facile argument. Let us have a mature debate. I hope
to add some thoughts in the few moments that I have.
Opposition Members have sought to ascribe the responsibility for high prices to
the coalition. Clearly, that is undermined by the fact that food prices were
23 Jan 2012 : Column 80
rising at a faster rate under the previous Government. Likewise, we know that
food price inflation was outstripping general inflation at one point last year,
only for the situation to be reversed later in the year. The dynamics of where
food prices stand at a particular point in time are of secondary importance to
hard-pressed families who are balancing their budgets. Those families want to
know what action is being taken to help, not just by Government, but by a range
of organisations that have a distinguished track record in this regard.
heard of some excellent initiatives in the area of food provision and
redistribution. We know about Healthy Start, which is a Government initiative.
We have heard about FareShare, which provided 8.6 million meals in the last
financial year. Many hon. Members have spoken about food banks, which are
organisations set up by wonderful, community-minded people with real compassion.
We applaud their activities. However, I say to Opposition Members, in particular
the hon. Members for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and for Bristol East
(Kerry McCarthy), that it is ridiculous to say that the rise in the need for
food banks is attributable to this Government. This Government spend £122
million a day just to pay the interest on the debt that their Government left
us. That is what we have to spend before we even pay off the debt.
Luciana Berger: Will the Minister give way?
Richard Benyon: No, I will not give way.
motion is almost entirely consumed with statements about the introduction of the
groceries code adjudicator. We agree on the importance of introducing an
adjudicator. That is why we have published a draft Bill and are getting on with
putting it in place. What is rather more puzzling is the position of the
Opposition, who wasted 13 years without introducing the adjudicator, even though
they knew that power was shifting from the suppliers to the retailers and had
received evidence on that. Despite that, they criticise this Government for not
having completed the process in 18 months.
motion refers to ?delays?. The only element of delay is in the motion itself,
which demands that the adjudicator be introduced in the next Parliament. The
hon. Member for Ogmore explained that that was a drafting error. In that case,
he must tell Members not to support the motion. Any Member who supports it is
showing a paucity of ambition, because it means that they want the adjudicator
to be introduced early in the next Parliament. The hon. Gentleman will have to
withdraw the motion. That is the only thing to do. The hon. Member for Wakefield
(Mary Creagh) might want to wait until after the next general election to
introduce the adjudicator, but the coalition has no such intention. We will
carry on with the work in hand and bring it in during this Parliament.
from the rather narrow focus on the adjudicator, there has been a series of
interesting and useful contributions on the work that can be done to mitigate
food prices. I pay great tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet
(Laura Sandys) and wish her social enterprise well. It sounds like an
interesting idea. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and
Malton (Miss McIntosh), who made some interesting comments about the social
impact of the threat of high food prices. I confirm for her that the groceries
23 Jan 2012 : Column 81
will consider anonymous submissions. She talked in particular about the fruit
and vegetable sector. Those suppliers can approach the groceries code
hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) asked when the groceries code
adjudicator would be introduced. I hope that we have answered her question. The
draft Bill is available. I cannot second guess what will be in the Queen?s
Speech. I would be in trouble if I did.
Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) spoke about local and home-grown
food. I pay tribute to what is happening in her constituency. My hon. Friend the
Member for St Ives was absolutely on target. He sought, as I do, cross-party
consensus because on these issues this House sometimes produces more heat than
light. If we look at the matter in detail, we see that there is a lot more that
we agree on than that separates us.
Government are hugely supportive of food banks and other organisations that work
to open up access to food. The coalition Government have been clear from the
outset about the importance that they attach to third sector and civic activity.
The success of many organisations in this area demonstrates why we are right to
work hand in glove with them in delivering social solutions.
debate has demonstrated the extent to which food price inflation is shaped by an
intricate matrix of interrelated global circumstances. To stand here and pretend
that the Government can step in and bring down food prices at a stroke would be
disingenuous. The Government can put measures in place to ameliorate the worst
effects of food price inflation, which we are doing through measures such as our
continued support for Healthy Start and other schemes. One of the biggest
determinants of food price is global and domestic supply, and this Department
has put farming and food production at the heart of its business plan. Whether
it is in stripping away the needless bureaucracy that has swamped farmers,
developing a strategy for balancing the needs of greater food production with
protecting our environment, or helping to fund innovation and increased
competitiveness, this Government are highly attuned to the need to increase
high-quality food production domestically.
right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is personally driving a great deal of
work with other countries to help to meet the food supply challenges set out in
the Foresight report. We are investing time and energy to ensure that we are
working hand in glove with others on that important challenge. Understandably,
the effects of that will take time to be felt.
fact is that there is no silver bullet. The Opposition should know better than
to pretend that the adjudicator will be the cure-all for hard-pressed families.
What families need now is for the Government to deliver real help right now to
get living costs down to a manageable level. To that end, the Opposition should
support freezing the council tax, cutting fuel duty, cutting income tax for 25
million people, extending free child care, increasing the child tax credit,
taking action on energy prices and many other measures. They were strangely
silent on those measures throughout the debate. That is the programme that the
coalition Government will continue to deliver in parallel with our work to
increase food security and keep food prices down.
that the House is united in its concern for those who struggle to manage their
food bills. That is as it should be. However, this debate has laid bare the
absence of any ideas from the Opposition. That is in marked contrast to the
practical steps that the coalition is taking to help hard-pressed families up
and down the country. On that basis, the motion should be rejected.